Friday, February 11, 2011


UFT President Michael Mulgrew is being criticized for comparing Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after a raucous protest in Brooklyn on February 3, 2011. The mayor is angry at the UFT and others for disrupting a Panel for Educational Policy meeting because we knew in advance the PEP would vote to phase out our schools. The crowded auditorium shouted over Chancellor Cathie Black’s opening remarks and then there was a walkout led by students, parents and teachers. If the obvious risk of jail, torture or worse that Egyptian protesters face is removed from Mulgrew’s comparison, but instead we just focus on government not responding to the cries of the people, then the analogy between Bloomberg and Mubarak holds up quite well when it comes to New York City public schools.

Just as years of ignoring the needs of the majority in Arab countries has resulted in massive protests, a mayor who has controlled the schools since 2002 and has disregarded the voice of public school parents, teachers and students is now facing our wrath. The only surprise is that it took so long for the frustration and futility of trying to work within the Department of Education’s system to finally reach the boiling point as it did last week. Consider the case of Jamaica High School, where our organized school community has attempted on numerous occasions to reach out to two Chancellors and the PEP, only to be ignored, dismissed or retaliated against for speaking out on behalf of our school.

Back in 2007, the Jamaica High School family signed a letter to then Chancellor Joel Klein asking for the Department of Education and New York City Police Department to reconsider making Jamaica High School an Impact School (unsafe school designation). We told Chancellor Klein that the DOE was misreading a Zero Tolerance discipline policy where we were reporting certain minor incidents that other schools would sweep under the rug. The response from DOE was not to reconsider their decision, but to make us an Impact School and then instead of reviewing our numbers, they were sent to the state and we were mislabeled a Persistently Dangerous School. That led to DOE writing a letter to parents telling them that the school was persistently dangerous and offering them a transfer. When hundreds of students transferred out in 2007, the DOE did nothing to help the school but instead slashed the budget in midyear, forced us to let go of most of our younger staff and decided to co-locate a new school, Queens Collegiate, inside our building.

Concerned citizens that we are, we thought it would be advantageous to make our case personally to Chancellor Klein so in April of 2008 we chartered a bus on our own and 89 teachers, students, alumni, other staff, parents and friends went to our first PEP meeting to tell the Chancellor how our budget was slashed mid year and how over a dozen teachers were being forced to sit around as Absent Teacher Reserves, not permitted to teach regular classes. We asked for assistance in recruiting from the DOE so that we could alleviate crowding in neighboring schools in our oversaturated borough. We apparently impressed Manhattan PEP representative Patrick Sullivan who emailed Klein asking him if he could do something for us. In return, the Chancellor wrote to Mr. Sullivan with a copy to me saying: “It’s not about resources. They have significant amount. Do you think you know anyone who would send child there?” Put aside the Chancellor’s poor grammar, he didn’t give us any support and he insulted parents who sent their kids to Jamaica. When we later returned to the PEP to show how Jamaica’s per pupil spending was significantly less than the new school in our building, the Chancellor directed us to his budget people who dismissed us.

In 2009 as our freshmen enrollments were finally starting to increase, we went back to the PEP and made a desperate plea to Klein and the panel because we were so strapped for funding that our student records were piling up. We no longer could afford records or pupil accounting secretaries and at that time we actually had classes that for months still had no teacher. Instead of directing teacher or secretarial help our way, a month later the Chancellor proposed phasing out Jamaica.

We then nearly filled up our 1,000 plus seat auditorium twice for meetings and hundreds of people spoke out in support of Jamaica High School. The Chancellor was not moved to assist us even after I emailed him to show how the data that they were using to close us was wildly inaccurate. (A subsequent investigation basically proved we were right.) In the spring of 2010, after the UFT, NAACP and others won a lawsuit to keep us open, the DOE again sent a letter out discouraging students from going to Jamaica and another encouraging current pupils to transfer out. Subsequently, we once again appealed to the PEP to let us re-canvass our zoned areas to help our recruitment and to try to alleviate crowding in neighboring schools like Francis Lewis where school lasts until 7:00 pm.

Not only were our pleas ignored, this time the DOE decided to co-locate two more schools in our building and again slash our budget way beyond citywide cuts so 30% of the teachers were let go. We made our case again at a July 2010 PEP meeting that the draconian cuts to students of Advanced Placement classes, many other electives, tutoring, the entire music program, all of our educational options programs for freshmen and more were unconscionable. In the fall the lack of teachers caused over 80 classes to go over the class size contractual limits and they had to be grieved. (Many remain oversize to this day.)

The DOE left us so bare that we had to file grievances in the fall for three teachers who were sent packing even though classes in their subject area existed so they should have been allowed to exercise their UFT contractual right of return. The contract says in Article 17B, Rule 8: “A teacher who has been excessed to another school may request an opportunity to return to the school from which he/she was excessed if within a year a vacancy should occur in that school. Such a request will have priority over any other transfer or appointment to that vacancy,” but that rule doesn’t apply to Jamaica. We had vacancies in math, physical education and social studies however DOE would not allow our teachers their right of return. We had to file grievances and five months later DOE finally acquiesced and permitted two of the teachers to come back. Unfortunately, for the fall term some of these classes had to be taught by teachers who were not teaching in their subject area license. Meanwhile, the DOE filled the social studies vacancy with someone from the outside while the teacher who was excessed, Dena Gordon, is forced to remain at another school. This in spite of the fact that during the latest Joint Public Hearing on closing schools the students protested with a long, loud chant of, “Bring back Ms. Gordon.” Since Ms. Gordon found a position after being excessed, DOE has the nerve to claim she transferred and forfeited her right of return.

We went through the school closing ritual again this December and January by showing facts and figures to prove that the DOE was wrong and that we face the challenge of having many more English Language Learners compared to the other schools in our building while we have a much higher teacher to student ratio than they have. We wrote petitions that close to 2,000 people signed in support of the school. We spoke in front of new Chancellor Cathie Black at her first PEP in January. Our kids even wrote a play criticizing school closings but administration tried to ban its performance. Our school community would not quit.

Students, parents, teachers, UFT officials, community activists, Senator Tony Avella, and Assemblyman David Weprin all told Deputy Chancellor John White at the January 20, 2011 Joint Public Hearing that Jamaica needs to remain open and receive support from the DOE. We told White how our pupils are forced to use obsolete equipment while new schools in our building have the most up to date technology. We told him we are also the only school in the building that has self contained special education classes (the most restrictive environment) and bilingual Spanish classes and in spite of all the cuts from DOE, state figures show our graduation rate has improved between 2005 to 2009 from 38% to 54%. Our rate of increase is actually greater than the city as a whole for that time period. Over 50 speakers, including PTA President Charm Rhoomes, student leader Kevin Gonzalez, UFT Secretary Michael Mendel and many others took to the microphone in defense of Jamaica. Community Board 8 also passed a resolution to support us. Deputy Chancellor White responded by saying that the community, the parents, the teachers, the students have spoken but the DOE disagrees with us!

We have repeatedly tried to reason with the DOE to no avail. I am fairly certain other schools slated for closure have some similar stories to tell. In the end it is amazing that those of us in schools that have been treated miserably for years have taken so long to respond with indignation that finally blew up at the February 3 PEP meeting. Mayor Bloomberg is lucky we have been so civil. We have shown remarkable restraint. In countries like Britain, France and now Egypt, the reaction would have been much more militant.


NYC Educator said...

Yes we do, but if we're like Egyptians it'll take another 20 years to get rid of the dictator. We're gonna have to seriously consider how best to channel these squawks.

Anonymous said...

A decision was made to weaken and then kill our school. Budget cuts, using a one-time theft of computers (grand larceny) as a reason to put our school on the dangerous list, sending letters advising parents that JHS was dangerous and they could transfer their children out, sending us high numbers of students with prison backgrounds, sending us higher numbers of special ed students with very risky behavior, laying off key teachers who ran vital programs, all of this adds up to the DOE killing our school.

Jamaica High School lasted for a proud 150 years. Does this mean nothing? It has a fabulous special ed department, powerful ESL program, an awesome finance program, an athletic program that is central to the lives of the male and female team members, the law program, strong science activities and more. We integrate students from the top to the academic bottom. Every student will tell you that JHS has been a caring place for him or her. These things are not accidents. A culture in a school builds up over decades. Teachers work together and build up trust and teamwork in helping students.

The true test of a staff is in its teacher talk. Our staff is caring and concerned when we talk to each other on breaks when no one is listening. It's called heart. It's called love. It's called putting the kids first and becoming true mentors and advocates for them until they can do it for themselves and for others.

Why did the DOE decide a few years ago to kill our school? Is it the financial interests of the smaller schools? Is it a power play?

There is a place for Jamaica High School as a caring community that gives whatever services a student needs--sp.ed. to honors, guidance to swimming. Properly funded, Jamaica High School can carry on and our students from so many countries and cultures can enjoy being part of a 150 year old tradition.

Jamaica's staff has the teamwork, dedication, proven teaching ability and just plain heart to produce successful students. Why not give it a chance?

Judith Pfeffer, English Teacher at Jamaica High School 2000-2009, now retired


Anonymous said...

When the PEP was preparing to vote one the actual closing of Jamaica High School on February 3, the Queens appointee to the PEP asked a critical question. He mentioned that he had been to JHS, and had noted that it seemed very poorly provided, in comparison with the new small schools that were sharing space in the building. He specifically mentioned the lack of smart boards and computers in JHS, and asked why the disparity was so great. The stunning answer he received from the chair of the PEP: Jamaica just couldn't afford to pay for all those goodies, because it had MANY MORE SENIOR TEACHERS THAN THE NEW SMALL SCHOOLS, and had to pay for all those expensive salaries. Can you believe it?

Also important to note: The Queens appointee to the PEP then proceeded to vote in favor of closing Jamaica and Beach Channel High Schools. He was the only borough appointee to vote in favor of closing schools in his own borough. Thus, the vote for closing the two Queens high schools was 11 to 1 in the case of Jamaica, and 11 to 0 in the case of Beach Channel. In the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan, the votes in favor of closing the respective schools were universally 8 to 4. (The mayor's 8 appointees all voted in favor of closing -- as they had to -- and the borough appointees all voted against. In the case of the Queens schools, the borough appointees took their leadership from the appointee of the borough in question, and voted as s/he did. Thus, the 8 to 4 vote in all boroughs but Queens; and the 11 to 1 it 11 to 0 vote with regard to the two Queens schools. Patrick Sullivan, borough appointee from Manhattan, was the lone dissenter, who voted against closing Jamaica, and abstained on the closing of Beach Channel.

Maybe the Queens Borough President should be hearing from his constituents about how his appointee has performed with regard to this matter.

Anonymous said...

The Queens Borough President has a special website so that her constitutents can file a complaint.

Ms. Marshall, QB Pres., has a catchy saying: GOT A GRIPE ???
Your Concerns Are Important Call

According to the site, they listen. Well, it's time for all the parents, students, teachers, stakeholders in Queens to make that call to her and give her your GRIPE about her puppet PEP member who pretended to be concerned about the lack of resources and material for JHS, but decided to vote in favor of closing it.

Flood their phones; make those calls.

Tony Da Fighter said...

It should be clear to all of us now that Mayor Bloomberg and his goons at the Department of Evildoers (DOE) are on a war path to destroy Public Schools and Public Education in New York City, the largest school district in the nation with 1.1 million children and attack relentlessly Public School Educators. The draconian plan is to privatize Public Schools by giving corporations, CEOs, entrepreneurs increasing shares of the education market through the establishment of charter schools, no less. We must fight to secure the future of our students, the interests of poor communities against the onslaught of the hedge-fund managers of Wall St and billionaires such as Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and their allies. We must defend Public Education as a right of our people.

Julia Schlakman said...

King Bloomberg blasted our behavior at the PEP meeting in February. He said that our behavior was embarrassing and immature. He questioned what such behavior would teach our students. Oddly enough, I had the exact opposite reaction. If he knew anything about our students he would know that their reaction was the same as ours. How can we explain the democratic process to our students when the PEP process is a 100% fixed rubber stamp process on everything that the mayor wants done. A process that is defined as being a platform for interested parties to voice their concerns to the PEP is a sham and we know it and sadly the kids know it too. As designed, the PEP was supposed to take our concerns into account when it made its decision. We all know that the Bloomberg appointed members hid their Blackberries on their laps while we screamed. They waited for the meeting to end so they could vote and get a congratulatory phone call from their puppet master. The scam is sickening. I just taught my students the main differences between democracy and communism. In a democracy we are supposed to have fair and free elections and our voices need to be heard. I use the example that under communism Stalin allowed the people to vote, but when they went to the polls the people had a choice between Stalin and Stalin. Surprise! Stalin won with 99.9% of the vote. Stalin could then say that he was an elected leader. After the PEP meeting when we all decided to walk out the auditorium, the students led us in a chant in which they shouted, "Show us what democracy looks like!" We responded, "This is what democracy looks like!" The kids know when they are being scammed and they understand a real democratic process. Please, Mr.Bloomberg and Ms. Black, do not pretend that you know anything about how to teach or that you know anything about what our students think. They are disgusted with you and I am too.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it's time to make Helen Marshall pay for this and we want it revisited.

Tony da Fighter said...

what you forgot to explain to your students is that Bloomberg is a capitalist dictator and Democracy under capitalism means vote for me to exclude you from enjoying social justice.

Anonymous said...

Would anybody know if the union plans to sue the DOE on the closing of these 25 schools like last year? We all heard the threat of another lawsuit from the union and various politicans. It has been almost two weeks since the vote to close Jamaica High School. Last year the union moved quickly to file papers. However it seems like the union is overstretched with another lawsuit and the budget battle. On another note it is good to see the anti-waver coalition file an appeal last week against the appointment of Ms. Black as Chancellor.

EWSIS said...

A free and quality public education is the right of every student. This is a right being denied the students at Jamaica High School. The DOE has decided the most vulnerable and at-risk students do not deserve the latest technology, small classes or new equipment.

So my questions to the DOE are simple why is a small school co-located in a Junior High School getting new science labs while JHS labs have not been updated in 30 years, the same school has over 150 computers available for students to use and each teacher has their own personal computer and plenty of money is available for tutoring and after school activities. Shouldn't all students have these same options.

I hope Cathy and her puppets read Brown V Board of Education and realize "Separate but Equal" was declared unconstitutional 60 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Only schools that agree with the mayor's political agenda get the modern stuff. It's pure politics.

Anonymous said...

Time to force Emperor Bloomberg out of the city: