East Harlem Residents Upset Over Proposed School Closure

Renee Cordova had a gut feeling that something bad was about to happen. The voice came unexpectedly through the intercom at the end of last year, asking all the teachers to gather at the library. The school is closing, her colleagues said. P.S. 50 Vito Marcantonio had been under scrutiny due to poor performance and declining enrollment. What else could it be?

They were right. Mayor Bill de Blasio had announced the proposed closure of P.S. 50 for those exact reasons, and people from the Department of Education office had come in to give the teachers a heads up.

One teacher asked District 4 Superintendent Alexandra Estrella if there was any hope. She said there wasn’t, that this was going to happen and not much could be done. In the 2016-2017 school year, students’ test scores for language arts and math continued to fall far below the district and city average. Student enrollment had declined 23 percent over the past five years.

Though the school’s closure appears inevitable, students, parents and teachers refuse to let it happen without a fight.

“This school has history beyond anything else you can think of,” said Tony Martinez, a parent. “It’s easy to sit at the desk and say this and that. Give P.S. 50 a chance.”

Public hearing held at P.S. 50 (Jennifer Kang for NYCity Lens)

Approximately 150 attendees filled the P.S. 50 gym last Monday when the Department of Education held a public hearing to discuss two proposals. The first is a proposal to close P.S. 50 at the end of this school year. The second is to move another school, Central Park East II, into the building P.S. 50 is in now.

The story goes back to fall 2014 when Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an ambitious program to turn around troubled schools. The “Renewal” program, which P.S. 50 is a part of, is a $528 million-dollar effort to help struggling schools by providing teacher coaches, health clinics, professional training and extended school days. Closing a school, like what’s happening with P.S. 50, would be a last resort, de Blasio had said. Since the start of the program in fall 2014, the number of schools enrolled in the renewal program has decreased from 94 to 78, all of them either shut down or merged with other schools.

Statistics clearly show that P.S. 50 is struggling. The school has a student achievement score of 2.05 out of 5 which is 1.27 points below the city average. Student achievement scores are calculated based on state test results, student performance in core courses, as well as how well students are prepared for high school.

In the 2016-2017 school year, approximately 13 percent of students were proficient in English, according to the Department of Education. The city average is 41 percent. Moreover, only 8 percent of the students at the school were proficient in math, compared to 38 percent citywide. Enrollment has also decreased steadily since the 2012-2013 school year, from 328 to 251 students.

 The Department of Education has not revealed any specific numbers that schools must meet to avoid closure.

Student enrollment over the years (Jennifer Kang for the NYCity Lens)

P.S. 50 is physically located in the middle of the community, embedded within several Metro North apartment complexes on the edge of East Harlem. The school is difficult to find at first, even with Google Maps in hand, because you must walk into the apartment structures and up a long ramp to enter.

Once P.S. 50 closes, all the teachers and students must leave, said Cordova. This is a devastating change from the past when staff and students could reapply to remain in the same school building. This time, staff and children alike will be scattered, having to find other schools.

“Okay, so you feel the staff is not working out, but why do the children have to move?” said Cordova. “They are being uprooted. They have to travel somewhere else when they have a school right in their community.”

Irma Medina holds up a sign in protest (Jennifer Kang for the NYCity Lens)

At the hearing this month, Irma Medina, 60, one of many parents who lives right across P.S. 50, held up a poster that read, “LIAR!”, a message directed at the school administration. Two of her grandchildren graduated from P.S. 50 and her youngest great granddaughter still attends.

“Parents don’t have money to send kids to other schools or buy school uniforms all over again,” Medina said.

According to the Department of Education, 78.5 percent of P.S. 50 students come from families eligible for Health Reimbursement Arrangement assistance, which is a program that provides food and health assistance to New Yorkers in poverty. This is 31.8 percent above the city average.

The Economic Need Index for P.S. 50 (Courtesy of the NYC Department of Education)

If the school closes, “families will be matched for another school,” said Milady Baez, deputy chancellor of the Department of Education. Moreover, during admission, Central Park East II will temporarily give priority to students living in the former P.S. 50 zone. In reality, it will be difficult for children to get into a new school because most application deadlines for schools have closed and Central Park II will have limited seats available, said Cordova.

“If you are failing it is your job to help us, not kick us out of our home away from home,” said Alyse Perez, 11, the student council secretary of P.S. 50. “To me it seems like you’d rather give up than help. Quitters never win or at least that was what I was always told.”

The Department of Education will hold a Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) meeting to vote on the proposal to close P.S. 50 on February 28.

Meanwhile, parents and teachers are trying to make sense of the situation.

“It hasn’t really hit me,” Cordova said, one month after she had heard the news. “And it’s the same thing with the children. When we pack up our belongings, maybe children will then come to the realization that, wait a minute, we’re not coming back here.”