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.