Jamaica High School UFT
167-01 Gothic Drive
Jamaica, NY 11432
December 18, 2008
Mr. Richard P.Mills
State Education Commissioner
New York State Education Department
89 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12234
Via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
& fax: (518) 473-4909
Dear Commissioner Mills:
We recently received a copy of a letter from Garth Harries, Chief Executive Officer for Portfolio Development, sent to you in response to our letter to you dated August 20, 2008, about the situation at Jamaica High School. Mr. Harries does not adequately address the central themes of the original letter: separate and unequal schools existing in the same building, what we call “academic apartheid,” and the need to lower class sizes so that all students have an ample opportunity to succeed. We would like to meet with you to investigate the issues further and take corrective action.
The State provided the City with Contracts for Excellence funds and in exchange, required the city to adopt a plan in which class sizes would be reduced to 23 in high school classes, as part of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity Settlement. Instead, the Department of Education has taken away valuable space from our students to give it to Queens Collegiate, the new selective school placed within our building and is planning to take even more space away from our school in the years to come. Taking this space away from Jamaica High School will make the goal of substantially lower class sizes for our students impossible to achieve.
As we stated in August when referring to the city’s class size plan, approved in the fall of 2007 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]
Mr. Harries in his letter claims the following: “The evaluation of available space throughout the system is based on the Standard Instructional Footprint that is applied to all schools sharing space.” He adds that “The DOE honors a school’s current class size – or an approved plan to reduce class size in the case where a principal has not previously been able to do so – but we also expect that the school is making full use of specialty rooms consistent with this footprint.”
If we do the math, we can clearly see that Mr. Harries’ “footprint” system is flawed at Jamaica High School. Our school has 57 regular classrooms and seven special education classrooms available. In addition, we have four labs, two music rooms, five computer rooms and one room used to house students who have been suspended. This is what is available for our roughly 1,500 students. We expect our population to grow or at least hold steady due to the recruiting efforts we have made in the community.
This year, we have already lost five full-time classrooms to Queens Collegiate for their incoming grade nine class as well as some lab and gymnasium space for part of the day. In addition, we have lost two other classrooms that have been turned into office space for our school because Queens Collegiate took away some of our administrative space as well. As Queens Collegiate grows by adding a grade ten class next year, we will be compelled to give up three more classrooms. In subsequent years, we understand Queens Collegiate is slated to expand to include grades 6-12 which will require Jamaica to relinquish even more of our classroom space. We will clearly not have sufficient space to lower class sizes significantly. Queens Collegiate will also be taking additional lab space and a greater portion of Jamaica’s gymnasiums. This unsustainable situation would seem to indicate that DOE is not intending to honor any commitment to significantly lower class sizes at Jamaica High School.
Let us examine the current class size situation. The latest DOE figures show Queens Collegiate has an average class size of 22.5 while Jamaica High School has an average of 26.1. As of December 9, 2008, Jamaica High School had 61 classes filled to the UFT contractual maximum class size of 34 and an additional six physical education classes at the cap of 50. When we delve into the numbers further, we see that there are 132 subject classes that have class sizes with over 30 students at Jamaica High School and 18 physical education classes over 45. These classes are far above the goal of 23 on average that the city has adopted for academic classes.
In order to reduce our class sizes from a maximum of 34 to 23, it would be necessary to create 70 additional classes and hire 14 extra teachers. There is no way these class size reductions can be achieved with the number of rooms allocated for Jamaica High School, especially as the number of rooms available to us will shrink as Queens Collegiate expands as planned within our building. Those 70 additional classes needed for class size reduction will require classrooms. Even if it were possible to program each particular classroom for eight periods per day, nine additional classrooms would still be required to meet the goal of 23 per class. Instead, we will be losing more classrooms to Queens Collegiate making the goal of substantially lower class size virtually impossible to attain.
It also needs to be understood that Department of Education class size figures should be examined very closely to ensure that they are accurate. The DOE often links classes on the register, making it appear that class sizes are smaller than they actually are. For example, we have Spanish classes that are linked with Spanish honors’ classes, since there are not enough honors’ pupils to run separate classes. Therefore, on the school’s organization chart there will be a Spanish 3 class with 23 pupils and a Spanish 3 honors’ class with 11. They both meet at the exact same time, in the same room and with the same teacher, but the DOE lists them as separate classes and can claim lower class sizes. In reality, there is one class with one teacher providing instruction for 34 pupils, rather than two smaller classes as reported.
Mr. Harries claims that Queens Collegiate has greater per pupil funding compared with Jamaica only because of “some start up funds.” He says, “New schools receive additional start up funds in their first year to off-set the cost of setting up offices and outfitting instructional spaces, i.e. classrooms gymnasiums, labs, etc.” Queens Collegiate is using Jamaica’s science labs and gym space; therefore it appears as though the start up funds are being utilized to outfit a school that is technologically superior to the school with which it shares space. Look at a Queens Collegiate classroom and compare it to a Jamaica High School classroom. While Queens Collegiate has smart boards in all of their rooms, Jamaica does not. While their rooms are freshly painted and both of their offices have brand new furniture as well as new equipment, our facilities are for the most part dilapidated. It is clear to anyone who has eyes that these are separate and unequal schools within the same building.
Mr. Harries seems to believe that Jamaica High School can improve student achievement if we reorganize into Smaller Learning Communities. Research shows, however, that class size, not school size is a critical factor in student achievement because it is within classes that instruction takes place. Without smaller classes, these learning communities will make little difference.[ii]
Moreover, when Mr. Harries analyzes school demographics and statistics, his comparison lacks validity. Mr. Harries claims: “In 2007-08, the new schools’ incoming 9th grade student population included higher percentages of African-American and Latino students, English Language Learners, and students that performed below grade level standards on 8th grade exams than schools citywide. In addition, new schools enrolled an equal percentage of 9th graders who require special education services as schools citywide.” Mr. Harries compares new schools with overall citywide averages instead of comparing the demographics of a new school with the school it is sharing space with or replacing, which would be a proper assessment.
If we examine the student characteristics of Jamaica’s current pupils and compare them with Queens Collegiate, the numbers are revealing. According to each school’s DOE school web page under “Statistics” on the “Register” page, Jamaica has a student population that is 58% Black and 18% Hispanic while Queens Collegiate has a student body that is 42% Black and 16% Hispanic.
In addition, the “Register” page shows that 14% (214) of Jamaica High School’s students are English Language Learners while Queens Collegiate has only one English Language Learner. Jamaica also has a higher percentage of students who have Individualized Education Programs than Queens Collegiate. Queens Collegiate has no students who are in self-contained special education classes (Most Restrictive Environment); they only educate the more moderately disabled Least Restrictive Environment special education students. However, 5% (81) of Jamaica’s pupils have Individualized Education Programs that call for the Most Restrictive Environment. In fact, we know of one student who was transferred from Queens Collegiate to Jamaica this semester because the new school could not accommodate the pupil who needed a self-contained program. If Jamaica had only one English Language Learner and no self-contained special education students, we could no doubt project that our test results and our graduation rate would rise accordingly.
Furthermore, many of Jamaica’s students are currently being treated unfairly as it is now the middle of December and there are still 14 classes that have no regular teacher. These classes are being covered by Absent Teacher Reserves who are working out of their license area or by teachers filling in for an extra class each day. The administration does not have the money to hire full time teachers to teach these classes. Ten of the classes are in self-contained special education and the others are in math. There is also a bilingual history class for students whose primary language is Spanish that is being taught by a monolingual teacher who speaks no Spanish. Many of our most vulnerable students are being short-changed because our school is not properly funded to be able to employ enough full time teachers to cover the classes we have.
As was stated in our August letter, the State Education Department has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that DOE makes a commitment to reducing class size at Jamaica HS to the levels in its state-mandated proposal to 23 -- as soon as possible. If this is not possible given space constraints, DOE should be required to find another home for the more selective Queens Collegiate. Having a better funded, better equipped small school that has lower class sizes within our building is harmful in many ways to Jamaica’s students. We need to end “Academic Apartheid.”
We would also like to note for the record that we are not criticizing the educators who work at Queens Collegiate or their students. Their teaching, administrative and support staff work in a very professional manner and we respect what they are trying to achieve. All we are asking for is equal treatment for our staff and pupils.
In addition, we are fully cognizant of the reality that New York State and New York City are presently operating under very tight fiscal constraints. Therefore, it would be a very wise financial decision for the DOE to consolidate Jamaica High School and Queens Collegiate into one Jamaica High School with one administration. The administrative savings would be substantial and those funds could be used to lower class sizes for all pupils, including those with the greatest needs who are predominantly served at Jamaica. We also strongly believe that using scarce resources for smaller class sizes rather than smaller learning communities would be a more effective investment to improve our students’ opportunities to learn.
As the State Education Commissioner is an official who has the authority to mandate the lower class sizes and equity for all pupils, we are asking for a meeting with you or a State Education Department Representative as soon as possible at Jamaica High School.
UFT Chapter Committee
Jamaica High School