Thursday, August 21, 2008

Open Letter to Commissioner Mills: Stop Academic Apartheid at Jamaica HS

Jamaica High School UFT

167-01 Gothic Drive

Jamaica, NY 11432

August 20, 2008

Mr. Richard Mills

State Education Commissioner

Albany, NY

Via email:

& fax: (518) 473-4909

Dear Commissioner Mills:

I must alert you to a growing crisis—“Academic Apartheid” in our schools. I am writing as part of the comment process on New York City’s Contract for Excellence (C4E) proposal. I am a twenty-two year veteran teacher at Jamaica High School in Queens, a traditional comprehensive public high school. I also represent over 100 members of the United Federation of Teachers as their elected Chapter Leader, a position that I have held for the last twelve years. The members who elected me would like to see more state funds sent to the city tied directly to lowering class sizes and a directive that sufficient classroom space be made available for reduced class sizes.

Despite the fact that Jamaica High School is on the state/federal accountability list as a low-performing school—last year, we were in our fifth year as a School Requiring Academic Progress—and supposed to get more C4E money as a result, the school is still receiving far less per pupil funding than Queens Collegiate, a new small selective school that is being placed in the building. We believe this is unfair.

According to the New York City Department of Education Website, Queens Collegiate is starting up with 81 students in the fall. They will receive $884,544 to run their school for 2008-09. Meanwhile, Jamaica is projected to have 1,484 pupils and was slated to receive an allocation of $11,636,267 this year. After extensive lobbying by the Jamaica High School community, our budget has recently been increased to $12,263,497. While we acknowledge the Chancellor and his financial officers for increasing our allocation, a huge per pupil spending gap between Jamaica and Queens Collegiate remains.

When the supplemental allotment is included, Jamaica, a traditional comprehensive high school that has many more high needs students, will be funded at $8,264 per pupil while the new selective school, Queens Collegiate, will be funded at $10,920 per pupil. This means that per student expenditures will be $2,656 greater at Queens Collegiate compared to Jamaica High School. This amounts to 32% higher spending for a Queens Collegiate student. Even taking into consideration start-up costs for the new school, this still adds up to separate and unequal schools within one building.

The promotional literature being produced by Queens Collegiate advertises lower class sizes. If Jamaica had a per pupil allocation similar to Queens Collegiate, we could easily lower class sizes to under 23 instead of having class sizes as high as 34, the level that we are currently projecting; we certainly could improve the student to counselor ratio and enhance other support services as well.

Despite the clear need for smaller classes, and the new state mandate to achieve them, particularly in low-performing schools, Jamaica High School is being denied the funding that would make this possible. In addition, valuable classroom space that could be utilized to provide room for this is being taken away from Jamaica to house the new school.

In June, many teachers in the Social Studies Department were told they are being evicted from rooms that they had been teaching in for years because a number of our classrooms and the Departmental Office will be taken over by the new school. This problem will worsen significantly in coming years as Queens Collegiate expands by two grades per year into a grade 6-12 school that will require much more space in the building.

It should be noted that in a recent citywide survey, 86% of NYC public school principals said that their class sizes were too large to provide a quality education, and 27% said that overcrowding in their schools had worsened from new schools or programs having been moved into their buildings in recent years.

In the city’s class size plan, approved last fall by the state, the DOE pledged that “decisions regarding the co-location of a new school or program in an existing building will explicitly take into account the decisions and plans principals have made regarding reduced class size. It is important to be clear that the DOE will not place a new school or program in a building at the expense of those schools and programs already operating within the building and that these decisions will be made in consultation with school principals.”[i]

Unfortunately, they are ignoring that pledge in the case of Jamaica High School and probably in many other schools as well. Principal Walter Acham was quoted in the Press of South East Queens in the April 18-24 issue as follows: “The decision [to open Queens Collegiate] was based in the fact that the school was underutilized, my personal preference would be for Jamaica to grow.” The building can only be considered underutilized if the critical need to reduce class size is ignored. The article also stated that “it was not [Acham’s] first choice to start a new year with Collegiate within Jamaica, but he would work with Collegiate’s principal.”

The Jamaica High School community expressed our opposition in various ways. First, a letter signed by the faculty was written to Helen Santiago, a College Board official, appealing for help as Queens Collegiate is a College Board school. Then on the evening of April 14, 2008, 89 people from the Jamaica family—a group that included teachers, other staff members, parents and students—addressed Chancellor Joel Klein and the other members of the Panel for Educational Policy.

We appealed to the PEP for equity for our students. We told them how a selective, better funded school within our building would have a detrimental impact on the opportunities for Jamaica’s high-needs pupils. We have also written to prominent politicians, emailed the Chancellor and attended another PEP meeting to expose the inequitable treatment our students will receive because of Queens Collegiate’s presence at Jamaica. Clearly, the views of the principal, the staff, the parents and the needs of our students have for the most part been disregarded by the Department of Education.

The DOE would seem to be paying no heed to their pledge to the state not to site new schools to the detriment of existing schools at many other sites as 18 new charter schools and 53 more small schools are planned for next year; nearly all of them are slated to share space with already existing schools. This policy is creating a system of “Academic Apartheid” in these buildings as the charter schools and many of the small schools are given permission to cap class size and/or enrollment at far lower levels than the schools that they are invading. Indeed, a recent analysis showed that small schools have a class size of four fewer students on average than large schools, 24 students per class compared to 28. [ii]

Many of the existing schools which are being forced to share space with these smaller schools also have excessive class sizes, and would otherwise have been able to reduce class sizes to more appropriate levels if they had the space. This situation calls for immediate state action.

Jamaica High School and all other city schools on the state or federal low-performing list should be given the funding, the space and a clear directive to reduce class size to at least the levels set out in the city’s five year plan—20 students in a class in grades K to 3, and 23 in all other grades—and the state must forbid any new school from being placed in the building of any state or federal low-performing school until it has achieved those class sizes.

If this is not done, then a system of “Academic Apartheid” will expand and there will be separate and unequal schools within hundreds of New York City school buildings, including Jamaica High School. The state has a moral obligation to ensure that this does not occur.

We look forward to your response.


James Eterno

Social Studies Teacher,

UFT Chapter Leader,

Jamaica High School

Cc: Deputy Commissioner Johanna Duncan-Poitier:

Education Secretary Manuel Rivera:

The Board of Regents:

Chair of the NY State Assembly Education Committee Cathy Nolan:

Geri Reilly:

Chair of the NYC Council Education Committee Robert Jackson:

State Senator Malcolm A. Smith:

Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver:

Executive Director Class Size Matters Leonie Haimson:

[i] NYC Dept. of Education, Approved Class Size Reduction Plan (November 17, 2007); posted at

[ii] John Tapper, Class Size and Contract for Excellence: Are we making progress in NYC’s public schools? April 28, 2008; Posted at for excellence.pdf


Anonymous said...

I wish all Chapter Leaders were like James Eterno. With leaders like James here is hope for a more militant and caring union to protect teachers from abusive and vindictive administrators.

If only James was head of the UFT not the clowns that now hold power.

Anonymous said...

Well there are very good people out there. They need to run and get elected to chapter leader positions in 2009.

Anonymous said...

Don't hold your breath waiting for an answer.

Anonymous said...

James, how many chimps on typewriters were working in the room to generate this piece?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Even though I suspect they would have done "SQUAT" maybe you should have CC Weingarten.

Anonymous said...

You are one tough cookie. I hope this doesn't come to bite you in the rear.

Anonymous said...

To the last commentator: Be not afraid!

Anonymous said...

We're only fearful of going back to school in this system.