A Rough Day
A woman with scratch marks across her right cheek and left arm sat in a small backroom at the New York Police Department’s 40th Precinct building in the South Bronx on March 28, waiting to file a report regarding the chaos that had started earlier inside the Mexicocina restaurant on Jackson Avenue. After a particularly rough day of work at the school across the street, Aixa Rodriguez, a teacher, had sought to take the edge off with a margarita at the quaint corner venue. She had barely indulged in a moment’s peace with her drink when a fight broke out between two teenage girls at another table and dishware began to fly, pelting the restaurant’s terracotta tiled floors with pieces of blue and white porcelain.
Rodriguez said that the situation triggered her teacher instincts and she at once stepped in to break up the fight. After leaving the premises, one of the girls began kicking cars parked outside. When Rodriguez ordered the girl to stop damaging private property, she headed for Rodriguez and challenged all of the sturdy 38-year-old’s strength, scratching, kicking, and spitting in her face. Police who discussed the case with Rodriguez said that the girl even spit in officers’ faces and that the mother informed them her daughter was on several medications for bipolar disorder.
Rodriguez’s father had been on the phone with her when the first dish was thrown and she screamed. He immediately ran to the restaurant from his house a few blocks away, along with a colleague who rushed over from the school. Police said that the teenage girl was arrested for assaulting Rodriguez. But the next day, it was Rodriguez who received a surprise notice from the Department of Education (DOE) saying that she had been reassigned, effective immediately. She would no longer teach any of her classes at the Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies high school, and would instead finish out the school year working in a DOE administrative office. The department has 60 days to inform teachers of the reason for reassignment. She hasn’t received an explanation yet.
A Rougher Year
That raucous spring afternoon came on the heels of a year rife with tension at the school across the street, where a month earlier, teachers, students, and parents at the school received their own surprise: a notice from the DOE proposing to close FLAGS, as the South Bronx high school is called for short, by the end of the school year. FLAGS is co-located with a K-12 public school in a three-story building that spans an entire block and faces the largest park in the Bronx. The education department also put forth a separate proposal to allot the space currently occupied by FLAGS to a more academically successful charter school, which would then co-locate with the K-12 school.
The school has been in trouble. Enrollment decreased 74 percent over the last five years from 388 students to just 99 students, and only 19 out of 44 seniors graduated last year. Consequently, on April 20, the DOE’s Panel for Education Policy unanimously passed both proposals at a public meeting. FLAGS will be the fourth public school to close under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña emphasized that the school’s performance issues and low enrollment numbers simply could not sustain the necessary funding and resources to stay open.
In the days leading up to the decision to shutter the school, the atmosphere among teachers and students has been tense and draining. Where many of them will end up is uncertain so relationships are understandably strained and morale is low.
“We’re so stressed, we can’t handle it. It’s just too much. It’s chaotic at that school right now,” said LaQuinta Stuart, a mathematics teacher that joined FLAGS last year. “We don’t really have the support, especially from the administration, so what do we do?”
In fact, the faculty has found itself under the gun from both the city and the state since the beginning of the school year to meet requirements set up by Mayor de Blasio’s renewal plan that identified struggling schools citywide, and by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s similar statewide program. Beginning in 2014, the city’s plan to transform troubled schools into community schools pledged $150 million over a three-year period, provided these schools met certain stipulated benchmarks, such as test scores and graduation rates. Governor Cuomo pledged $75 million with similar benchmarks, but over a two-year period.
The school’s results have been mixed. A state report evaluating FLAGS high school’s recent quarterly performance from November to January 2015 found it in good standing. However, the DOE found that the school’s dismal enrollment and graduation rates did not meet the city renewal benchmarks. Unfortunately for Rodriguez, who also joined FLAGS as a tenured teacher last summer, along with the new principal that hired her and several other new teachers, the data used to assess performance for the city renewal plan was from the school year before she arrived, so the new staff barely had a chance to prove itself.
Fight or Flight
It hasn’t always been such a dismal prognosis for FLAGS. The school used to have 388 students enrolled in the 2010-2011 school year, including exchange students, and a full foreign language department teaching five or six languages. As evident from the name, the school’s original mission envisioned a curriculum that would cultivate multilingual, multicultural students. Now, the school only has one Spanish teacher and 15 teachers total, minus Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, a Bronx native who learned to build her own teaching curriculum at Fordham University and spent a year teaching abroad in Japan, boarded the troubled ship mentally prepared to take on a challenge. She immediately volunteered for the school’s leadership team to help FLAGS achieve goals and the benchmarks set up the city and state’s plans. She got the sense early on, however, she said, that not everyone shared the same “hands on deck” attitude, that “people were panicking and trying to do this do that, but nothing was capitalized on.”
Bonnie Heffner, whose daughter is currently a freshman at FLAGS, for example, went to a Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meeting early March to get signatures for her petition to fight the closure. The effort got nowhere. “A lot of the staff there, I don’t know, it was kind of like they were sleeping – including the principal, like when I went and expressed my concern for what was going on and how I wanted to fight it, she was like, ‘Well I’m not gonna get in the middle of all this. I’m just gonna keep myself out of this’ – and she stepped out of the room,” said Heffner. “It was a meeting that I had personally scheduled to speak to the staff about my petition. Seeing that, I was like, ‘Wow this is incredible.’”
She added that students and parents seemed to have to given up, treating the meeting as more of a preparation for closure and talking about creating a scrapbooking project. “I was kinda disappointed, because to me it was like, well it hasn’t closed yet! It’s proposed to close, but we can fight it – what are we doing?” she said.
Heffner was also unsure whether the administration had made enough effort to fully inform the school’s parents of the situation, considering a significant language barrier for most parents at the school. More than half of the student body is Hispanic, a quarter of which are also English language learners.
By Heffner’s account, the school’s administration plowed forward with perfunctory calls and issued a statement to the press, without fully explaining the significance of what was happening to parents. Several media outlets broke the story about the proposed closure on February 25, the same day the first robocalls in English and Spanish went out to families morning and afternoon. Letters were also backpacked home with students that day. Call attempts were repeated a couple days later, followed by a community meeting packed with parents and students, then a sparse public hearing attended mostly by activists.
“They set it up so there would be no way for the parents or students to actually vote to keep FLAGS open, because they already dismantled it – that was the bigger issue,” said Rodriguez. “You didn’t give parents or teachers or students in the community a voice. You went full-speed ahead: two robocalls to student homes, notified the press with a chancellor’s statement, and Bronx12 outside our door before we even told our kids.”
FLAGS Principal Leslie Chislett refused to comment for this story on any matter involving the school.
A Death Spiral
Teachers and parents say that the decision to close the school adds a burden to a community that is already struggling with poverty, making a bad educational situation even worse. 85 percent of the student body here qualifies for free lunch and more than a quarter of the student body requires specialized educational plans to accommodate disabilities. Initially, FLAGS used to screen its applicants, but Rodriguez said that since it began accepting more high-needs students, it began to “hemorrhage” other kids.
That created a catch-22: If a school does not have enough students, it receives less funds from city and state and loses the ability to hire more teachers or attract new students. DOE budget reports show that is in fact what happened. The school’s budget started decreasing in 2009 and dropped from $4.3 million to $2.3 million in 2016.
“Low graduation rate, low this rate, low that rate – and the school is blamed for it, but we’re in the poorest district,” said Rodriguez about the closure. “This is District 7 in the South Bronx. The poverty is real. Ten percent of our kids are officially in shelters the last time we checked stats, and those are only the kids we know officially. Some people are very private, you never find out that they’re living with multiple generations of their family in a small apartment. These are the people who are getting impacted by constant school closures, and it’s always in these neighborhoods where people cannot represent themselves.”
David C. Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, calls it a death spiral.
“If one school is taking all the kids from the shelter, another school is protected from taking kids from the shelter,” said Bloomfield. “The challenges aren’t equalized. The myth of the failing school is that some schools are effectively designated for failure by the school system and others are designated for success,” said Bloomfield. By his logic, FLAGS was one of the schools designated for failure.
Marilena Marchetti, an occupational therapist who works in schools in a nearby district that also has high rates of homelessness, told panel members at the April 20 vote that she feared for the schools where she works because of what she sees as a disturbing pattern emerging with Mayor de Blasio’s renewal program.
“You are more likely to be targeted for a charter co-location or expansion leading to the closure of your school if you are in the renewal program than if you are not,” said Marchetti. “Can somebody please answer to the fact that this is a pattern that generates harm and a negative school climate all year?”
Besides uncertainty over the school’s future, Rodriguez said that serious distractions throughout the school year further discouraged long-term planning and built up tensions and doubts. Numerous proposals to co-locate or merge FLAGS with other schools constantly loomed over teachers and students from the beginning of the year, and puzzling renovations began at the school late fall, reinforcing the belief that something was afoot with the school’s future. In the restrooms, for example, the toilets were lowered – an odd development in a building meant to house a high school.
“One person brought up how magically the windows had been replaced, and people looked at that as suspect, not as routine taking care of the public school, but as slow long-term refurbishing of a desirable building for the eventual occupation of a charter school funded on the dime of the DOE and taxpayer money,” said Rodriguez. “That’s how we’re viewing it, cause it doesn’t make sense – everything else is broken. I’m looking it at it like, I have to go to the bathroom but the toilet is three inches lower than it used to be. How much clearer can it get, that the school is going to be for younger grades?”
During the winter, construction work on a park across the street from the school also disrupted lessons to the point where Rodriguez had to keep the windows shut to drown out drilling noises, despite stifling heat in the building. Then in January, right during the school’s administration of the New York State Regents exams, several charter school representatives toured the school with FLAGS principal Leslie Chislett, snapping photos of classrooms.
The late February announcement to close FLAGS triggered a wave of anxiety among students and their parents for another reason: where students would be attending school in the fall was now an open question. “Finding out that the school was going to close was really difficult because it just got thrown at us last minute,” said FLAGS parent Heffner, whose daughter, Elissa, who enrolled in school for the first time this year as a freshman after being home-schooled all her life. Heffner had been excited about the low student-to-teacher ratio at FLAGS, and her daughter had been doing well there both socially and academically. The DOE did notify the family in late April that Elissa has been accepted to a school, but has not yet told them which one it is.
The timing of the announcement was particularly tricky for students. There are two rounds of applications for students to apply for high school in New York City. FLAGS students missed the first round, where they can choose about a dozen out of over 400 schools in the five boroughs to rank on a list of preferences. The list that Elissa received of high schools with spots left in second round applications only included about 30 schools. The second round also excluded Elissa from being able to make audition deadlines for certain schools, especially ones with gifted arts programs, which Heffner said would have been perfect for her.
Heffner and her daughter found choices given within the Bronx too limiting, so they wound up having to choose a school in Manhattan, which means Elissa will have to commute if the school is accepts her. Heffner said she would travel with her daughter until she felt comfortable with the route. Many students at FLAGS do not necessarily come from homes with parents who could do the same.
A 2010 study on the special impact of school closures on homeless students found that the DOE lacked a show of efforts to track students. “As it stands now, the closing of public schools, with the resulting impact on homeless students in the 20 schools reviewed here, raises more questions than it answers,” concluded the study, stressing a positive relationship between school stability and performance. That was six years ago. At the April 20 meeting, Chancellor Fariña promised that the DOE would promise to start tracking students.
Tenured teachers like Rodriguez, making over $70,000 and coming from a failed school, also will face difficulty finding jobs in a market that tends to favor younger, less expensive teachers. To add heat to the competition, a colleague who teaches at a charter school forwarded Rodriguez a DOE email about a Select Early Hire Program that is matching teachers new to the DOE with school districts in the South Bronx through early interviews.
When NY City Lens asked a DOE press representative about similar programs for veteran teachers, she replied, “The short answer is no.” However, she pointed out, there are many professional development programs to help teachers become administrators or earn college credit in professional education subjects to gain competitive edge, although this could potentially price a teacher out of more positions.
Impact on Community
For Rodriguez, a naturally outspoken third generation Puerto Rican who came home from Japan, after almost marrying a Japanese man, to be closer to her family, the closure hasn’t only clouded her professional future, but has also had deep emotional impact on her.
“I’m born and raised in the Bronx, so for me this is personal – shit, it’s really personal,” said Rodriguez. “If you’re able to see your cousin and family and you can walk down the block and know all these people, that is a community. It may not look like it to people from the outside, this may not look nice to them. It sure as hell doesn’t look like Astoria, but it’s still our community. We may not have a wine bar down the block, but damn it’s still our community. It feels like it’s being ripped away slowly.”
FLAGS parent Heffner defends Rodriguez and says her efforts inspired her to fight to save other schools in the Bronx. “She’s always standing up for student rights and teacher rights and keeping schools open, especially within the Bronx,” said Heffner. Of 62 receivership schools in NYC under state scrutiny, 32 are in the Bronx.
The saga will come to an end in the fall, when the space occupied by FLAGS will be taken up by the Academic Leadership Charter School, a grades 5-7 school looking to expand to grade 8. It will share the building with the K-12 school currently co-located with FLAGS, the JM Rapport School for Career Development. Chancellor Fariña said that one of the goals of co-location is to appoint school leadership teams to create one new name and identity for the school so they both can move forward together. Rodriguez said it will be interesting to see how the charter school will grow with the JM Rapport School, a special needs school with over 500 students, where just last October a student made local headlines for stabbing his teacher with a pencil.