HARLEM — Enraged supporters of Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts criticized city plans to phase out the struggling middle school Thursday, saying it hasn't been given a chance to succeed.
Parents, teachers, clergy and elected officials criticized the Department of Education at a joint meeting of Community Education Council 3 and the DOE — with some vowing to fight the closure.
"Occupy Wadleigh!" shouted state Senator Bill Perkins to hundreds of parents and students in attendance.
"We have to fight for what we want," Assemblymen Keith Wright added.
City Councilman Robert Jackson urged participants to "continue to keep the pressure on," while Councilwoman Inez Dickens described the DOE's school closure process as "a mere formality."
"I stand firm in my opposition to a policy that disenfranchises our children," she said.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, City Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio came out to support the school, too. Rev. Michael Walrond of First Corinthian Baptist Church and many of his congregants also joined the effort to save Wadleigh.
An underlying concern — the plan for Harlem Success Academy Middle School to move into the building — added to the raucous environment. The charter school plans to move two grades into the building Wadleigh now shares with two other schools.
"This is about real estate," said CEC 3 member Noah Gotbaum.
But the city's Chief Academic Officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, disagreed. He told the crowd that the phase out of Wadleigh's middle school was due to its performance.
Further, parents, students and teachers all indicated they were dissatisfied with the school in surveys, he added. Parent satisfaction was in the bottom 12 percent, teachers ranked in the bottom 13 percent and students were in the bottom 20 percent.
Polakow-Suransky assured the crowd, however, that the high school was not in danger of being closed.
"We believe it is possible to make Wadleigh more successful by focusing on it as a high school," he added.
Polakow-Suransky also responded to concerns that the DOE hadn't done enough to try to support and save the middle school. The DOE had provided various teacher training grants and programs to improve academic support, he said, not to mention training programs to reduce fighting among students.
Another grant helped to reestablish the culinary arts program at the school, he added.
"The real question at hand is... a school performing at this level and this size, is it possible to make it successful?" asked Polakow-Suransky.
The answer from the audience was a resounding "Yes!" They also rejected the DOE's explanation of what had been done to save the school.
"There is a real disconnect between what you are saying in this hearing and what is done in practice," said Walrond.
Anthony Klug, a social studies teacher and union representative at Wadleigh, agreed.
"Last year all I saw was discouragement. The support you mentioned did not happen," he said.
Klug said Wadleigh's middle school students didn't have physical education last year and lost their only guidance counselor and math coach because of budget cuts.
"Closing a school is the easiest thing you can do. What is difficult is to assist a school," said Klug.
Wadleigh students and alumni urged DOE officials to give the middle school another shot.
"Wadleigh allows children like myself to explore the world through dance and the arts," said sixth-grader Nia Minnerville. "I'm only a sixth-grader and I realize the pertinence of artistic knowledge."
Shemeka Cobbs, 24, a Wadleigh middle school graduate who is now a second year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College, said she is an example of the success of the school.
"The staff is like a lifeline for me. I still come back for support," said Cobbs, whose brother now attends the school. "I don't think this is a failing school. I'm not a failure. They just don't know us."
Dickens said she hopes the show of support will make the DOE consider its decision. The law governing mayoral control of the schools, however, must be changed to protect schools like Wadleigh, she said.
"We are hoping they will take this back to the administration and say they are mobilized. They are all in," said Dickens.
The Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the phaseout of Wadleigh's middle school grades, along with the partial closing of Washington Irving High School, on Feb. 9 at Brooklyn Technical High School.