Fighting for a School Designated to Close

In the South Bronx, the battle to keep a middle school open raises questions about a city program to help schools that are struggling

On a recent Monday evening, the auditorium at Arturo Toscanini Middle School (M.S. 145) in the South Bronx was packed with teachers, students, and alumni who had come out in the hopes of convincing the Department of Education to Vote “no” on an upcoming vote to close the school. Testimony went well over three hours, as supporters of the school, parents and teachers, one after the other, implored the DOE to keep the school open.

“It makes no sense taking students out of a place where they feel comfortable,” said Karina Peralta, an alumni of the school. Some parents testified in Spanish, saying that their kids were happy at M.S. 145, and could now translate in English for them wherever they went.

Concerned members of the J.H.S. 145 community at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting in February.

Concerned members of the J.H.S. 145 community at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting in February.

“It seems cruel to me to evict kids from a place that is their home away from home, that has been an anchor in this community for 50 years,” said James Donohue, an English teacher who has been working at M.S. 145 for 18 years.

The fight to keep M.S. 145 has been going on in full force since the DOE officially informed the school in February that it was proposing to close the school due to low performance from students, low enrollment, and low demand by students and families. Now, before the Panel for Educational Policy — a committee of 13 appointed members and the New York City school chancellor — votes on whether to keep the school open on March 22, members of the school community are speaking out about what they view as a lack of proper support from the DOE in a school that has long struggled to support its students.

“We haven’t received the help we need,” said Craig Moss, an English and technology teacher at the middle school, at the meeting. “But instead of helping us, you want to shut us down.”

Tension between M.S. 145 and the DOE first arose in March 2015, when a vote was held to allow grades 3-5 of a Success Academy Charter School to co-locate with the middle school building. The question of co-location came up only four months after the city designated M.S. 145 as part of its Renewal Schools program, which was started by the de Blasio administration with the goal of giving extra resources to underperforming schools throughout the city. The city said they would give designated schools three years to improve their academic performance as part of the program and the schools would be held accountable for rapid improvement.

But, parents and teachers at M.S. 145 say, the school wasn’t given a full three years before the city made a decision on its performance. When Success Academy moved into the school only months after the school had entered the Renewal Schools program, teachers at the middle school got the sense that Success Academy was planning on staying for good.

“It’s never seemed temporary. As an entity they have massive finances,” said Moss, the English and technology teacher, of the Success Academy schools.

Success Academy Schools, founded by Eva Moscowitz, have faced criticism for promoting a system of education that some view as inequitable. Teachers like Moss and James Donohue both said that they have seen workers from Success Academy measuring the size of their classrooms after hours, which they both believe suggests that Success Academy is already planning to take over the building once M.S. 145 closes.

“Maybe doing temporary renovations is normal for them,” said Moss, “but that doesn’t seem temporary to me. It never seemed temporary with us.”

The fact that Success Academy had published a page on its website featuring its newest charter school location serving grades 5 through 8 in the Bronx around the same time that the DOE told teachers that it would propose to close M.S. 145, didn’t help. Asked to comment on this website, Nicole Sizemore, the press secretary for the charter school network, replied via email: “The website mistakenly had the wrong grades that would be served at Success Academy Bronx 3 Upper and once we discovered the mistake we immediately corrected it.”

At a hearing held last Monday, representatives of the DOE said that students from M.S. 145 have not met the benchmarks that were originally set for the school when it entered the Renewal Schools Program. These benchmarks included not only test scores, but also attendance and school quality. In 2016, seven percent of M.S. 145 students scored a 3 or 4 on state English Language Arts tests, well below the district average of 19 percent. Four percent of M.S. 145 students scored a 3 or 4 on state Math tests, compared with a district average of 14 percent. Even though the individual school’s 2016 state test scores show improvement from the past two years, they remain below the district 9 average on such achievement metrics.

In the two years that it has been part of the renewal schools program, M.S. 145 has struggled to keep teachers, going a year without an ESL teacher and several months without an assistant principal. In a school where 43 percent of students are English Language Learners, and 27 percent of students have disabilities, some members of the school community believe the DOE hasn’t been giving the school what it needs to succeed.

“[The DOE] spends a lot of money on people that swoop in and pay high fees and tell teachers what they need to do, instead of asking the community what they need,” said Jane Maisel, a former classroom teacher and an adjunct professor of education at City College of New York. Maisel said she saw staffing as one primary need that hadn’t been properly addressed by the city.

But Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose said that giving the school the full three years to meet the marks wouldn’t improve the situation. “It will not be any easier next year to hire the same kinds of teachers that we are having difficulty hiring now,” said Deputy Chancellor Rose said at last week’s hearing. “Our challenge providing staffing will be no different next year than it is this year.”

Superintendent Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario, who oversees all District 9 schools, said that other schools with the same challenges as M.S. 145 had met, and even exceeded, the benchmarks set by the Renewal Schools program.

“The kids deserve better,” the superintendent said at the same hearing. “They deserve schools that meet their needs and use the resources provided to them in a better way.”

Still, some parents and teachers say that it’s not the school that has failed the kids, but the Department of Education.

“If you’re telling us now that we’re closing the school because we’re not meeting the goals, that means the program that you’ve put in place has failed,” said Annagine Lewis, a parent of a sixth-grader at the middle school and the president of the Parents’ Association. “Your own program has now failed us.”

The principal of M.S. 145 was unavailable for comment at the time the article went to print.

In the week leading up to the vote, those fighting to keep M.S. 145 open will continue to make calls and reach out to local political leaders in hopes of persuading enough members of the Panel for Educational Policy to vote no on the proposal to close the school on March 22.

Alondra Uribe, 15, a recent alumna of M.S. 145, said she will continue to fight and thinks the vote to close it is “totally unfair.” Being a student at the school, she says, was an amazing experience.

“This is my home, and I’m not going to let it fall that easily under idiotic people,” she said. “All they want is money and property.”

 

 

 

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