Washington Irving High School Closure Plan Sparks Outrage

By Mary Johnson on December 20, 2011 5:53pm 

Parents, teachers and students gathered on the steps of Washington Irving High School in Gramercy on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, to protest the school's planned closure.
Parents, teachers and students gathered on the steps of Washington Irving High School in Gramercy on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, to protest the school's planned closure.
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Jack Miller

GRAMERCY — Outraged parents, students and teachers at Washington Irving High School gathered Tuesday morning on the steps of the century-old building to voice their opposition to the city's plans to close the Irving Place institution.

The closure, announced on Dec. 9, is one of many the Department of Education is planning for underperforming schools. Washington Irving, which has been struggling for some time, was given an F on its most recent progress report, the DOE announced earlier in December. Last year, fewer than 50 percent of its students graduated in four years, and just 30 percent went on to a two-year or four-year colleges.

But advocates for the school came out Tuesday to debunk those statistics, which they claimed don't tell Washinginto Irving's whole story.

"We’re not failing," said Sharon Talbot, the mother of a sophomore at Washington Irving and one of the parents who participated in the protest. "We’re accused of having these terrible statistics. [But] within the school, there is excellence."

Talbot said Washington Irving fulfilled an important need within the city by offering special education courses for children such as her son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and has trouble reading. The Upper West Sider said she applied to a number of schools for her son, who doesn't test well and was placed at Washington Irving.

Now, she added, he's thriving.

"That’s why we are stunned and fighting all of this," she said. "The school should not be closed. There are very few schools left that handle this type of population."

The DOE did not immediately respond to a call requesting comment.

Washington Irving has been fighting for its life for some time.

After a new principal came in nearly four years ago, supporters said the school made a marked improvement. Progress for every student was now being diligently charted and analyzed. Then, in September, the school was awarded tens of thousands of dollars in federal funds to help improve its performance.

Washington Irving High School has been slated for closure.
Washington Irving High School has been slated for closure.
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Flickr/eden pictures

Gregg Lundahl, a Washington Irving teacher for the past 22 years, said that, over the years, the school has lost its library, some of its programming and its college adviser.

"We’re being judged now on how many children go on to college, but they took our college person away from us," Lundahl said. "We’ve been set to fail for years. You could just watch it happen."

He added: "We would have turned the building around with resources."

Just a few months after the fund announcement, however, the DOE said Washington Irving's number was up.

"We can't afford to have schools that are not supporting our children," Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott told reporters after a town hall meeting with parents earlier this month.

But Lundahl said some of the statistics cited by the DOE, namely the school’s low graduation rates, should not be taken at face value.

"Our number one elephant in the room is that we get kids that have a high propensity not to show up to school," said Lundahl, noting that among the children who do show up, the graduation rate is likely higher than 70 percent.

"[Closing the school is] a nightmare," he said. "What does it do? Punish the highest need students and those that are going to teach them."

The advocates will be pleading their case in a meeting with Department of Education officials on Jan. 31, 2012.

"I don’t know if we can save the school, but there is so much outrage about this," said Talbot. "My son will be fine, but the kids coming after us will not be fine."

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