Samuel Gompers Students, Staff Make Final Plea to Stave Off School Closure
MOTT HAVEN — Joseph Duarte and his friends have tried posters, meetings and walkouts to rally against the proposed closing of their high school.
At the final public hearing before a city panel votes next week on a proposal to shut down Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School, Duarte tried shouting.
“I’ve been doing everything I can to save my school,” Duarte, a sophomore, barked into a microphone Thursday night, his eyes locked on a Department of Education official. “And you’re doing nothing to save my school.”
The three-hour public hearing held in the auditorium of the 75-year-old school on Southern Boulevard began with the Department of Education's chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, explaining why the city believes the best option is to phase out the school and replace it with two smaller ones.
Polakow-Suransky cited stark statistics about the school, including its four-year graduation rate of 41 percent in 2011, ranking it among the lowest 1 percent of city schools. Its attendance rate, at 72 percent, ranked among the bottom 2 percent of schools and, he added, student demand for the school is down 46 percent over the past four years.
Dozens of students, teachers and supporters then defended the school, blaming the city for the its failure. Among other reasons, they pointed to limited resources, neglect by the city and a student body that deals with many challenges outside of school.
At various points, members of the capacity crowd erupted into impromptu chants, including "Shut down the DOE!"
“Is it fair that we have outdated textbooks,” asked senior Miguel Estrella, “so that the last history textbook that I had last year ended with the Cold War?”
Carla LaChapelle, an 11-year English teacher at Gompers whose father graduated from the school, blamed overcrowding.
“Class size here has exploded,” she said. “How are we going to teach 30 students with 30 different levels?”
Farah Despeignes, who also teaches English, said her classes of more than 30 students did not have access to computers in her room and read copies of “Romeo and Juliet” published in 1967. She said she has given her students class time to write the White House to ask for more support for their school.
Despeignes added that many Gompers students face exceptional difficulties before even stepping foot in the school. She said she has taught teenagers whose parents have been recently deported or jailed, who read at an elementary school level or who lack basic necessities.
“These are kids who come to school hungry and without coats,” Despeignes said.
In 2010, 92 percent of Gompers students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of family poverty, according to the Department of Education. In addition, 17 percent of students are English Language Learners, and about a quarter are in special-education classes.
Despite its struggles, the school still adds value to the community, several attendees said.
Elliot Vazquez, along with Duarte and other students, have tried different strategies over the past two years to reverse their school's fortunes. On Thursday, the senior said he had excelled at Gompers.
“I wouldn’t be a 90-average student going into college without this school,” he said.
Many students and teachers also noted that as a career and technical education school, Gompers offers courses in desktop publishing and computer networking and repair — programs that allow students to earn special diplomas that include industry-recognized certifications. One trade teacher, who declined to give his name, said he had a list of 100 former students who are now construction workers earning about $100,000 a year.
John Hyland, a 1966 graduate and president of the school’s alumni association, said he studied electronics at the school, then went on to start his own electronics installations business with his father. He was later hired by a telephone company, he said, and retired in 2003 with $500,000 in the bank.
“This is bad news,” he said about the proposal to close the school. “These guys really got to get their skills now so they’re viable entities in the job market.”
Gompers is one of three career-oriented high schools in the Bronx the city wants to close, the others being Grace Dodge and Jane Addams. The DOE says it plans to open four new schools next year in the Bronx that would offer career-oriented courses leading, it says, to a net gain in ninth-grade seats in those classes.
The city’s Panel for Educational Policy will vote Feb. 9th on various school proposals — including the plan to close Gompers. The panel, with eight out of 13 members appointed by the mayor, is expected to approve the city’s plans.