BROOKLYN — A city panel voted to shutter nearly two dozen struggling schools late Thursday night after a noisy hearing attended by more than 2,000 protesters — including a contingent from Occupy Wall Street which threatened to shut the meeting down.
The Panel for Educational Policy voted to close or phase out 18 schools the Department of Education says are failing, including Washington Irving High School near Union Square, The Legacy School For Integrated Studies in the Village and the Manhattan Theatre Lab High School on the Upper West Side.
Five schools, including four in Brooklyn and one in the Bronx, will lose their middle schools.
An additional 33 schools have been threatened with closure — to be voted on this spring — marking the largest number of schools the city has ever moved to close in a year.
Police estimated more than 2,000 people, including parents, advocates and Occupy Wall Street protesters, packed the auditorium at Brooklyn Technical High School in Fort Greene, where speakers were drowned out by shouting, blowing whistles and chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
Many booed as the panel signed off on the closures one after one. The majority of the group's members are appointed by the mayor and have never voted down a closure plan.
"It's not fair that all of the schools are being shut down,” said 18-year-old Bryant Acosta, a senior at Legacy who said that, although his school had been struggling, he felt it had finally started to turn around.
“I wanted to come back to my school one day and see it and say, 'This was my high school,'” he said.
For parents at the meeting, the decisions were also a blow.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Takiesha Robinson, 29, a member of the PTA at PS 22 in Brooklyn, where her children attend pre-k and second grade.
She and others said it was especially frustrating to watch the panel go through the motions when it was so obvious a decision had already been made.
“The panel had their mind made up already,” said Latosha King, 32, from Crown Heights, who has a son in fifth grade at PS 22.
While most of the schools on the chopping block had long histories of poor performance, some among the closure list were recently opened by the Bloomberg administration.
Joseph Mendinghall, a sixth grader at the Academy for Business and Community Development (ABCD), a small, all-boys school in Brooklyn, said that he and his classmates were devastated to learn the school would have to shut its doors.
“It just made me feel empty inside,” said Mendinghall, who lives in Bushwick. “It tore us apart.”
His mom, Amalfia, 46, said news of the closure was such a huge blow that students were left in tears. She blamed the DOE for failing to give the school the time and resources she said it needs to succeed.
“How do you expect a school to turn around when there’s no music program, no science program? They don’t even have a library,” she said.
But Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who remained cool and collected throughout the hearing, argued that it wasn’t right to keep schools open if they are failing kids with consistently low test scores and graduation rates.
“We can’t afford to do that,” he said, adding that while some of the closures might not be popular, they are in the best interests of the students.
In additon to parents, the hearing was dominated by protesters from a splinter group of Occupy Wall Street, calling itself “Occupy the DOE,” which had threatened to halt the panel's vote, prompting far tighter-than-usual police presence.
“The goal tonight is to stop the vote, to stop them from closing the schools at least for one night,” said Matt Curinga, 40, who lives in Brooklyn, before the plan was called off.
Much of the group left half way through the meeting.
The teachers’ union had also planned to hold its own “People’s Panel for Education Policy” in protest of the PEP at the nearby P.S. 20, intended to give schools on the chopping block the chance to make their case against closure.
Those plans were also thwarted when police refused to let them march from a rally ahead of the hearing outside of Brooklyn Tech, where half a dozen elected officials had gathered to slam the DOE for closing schools instead of working with staff and parents to help them improve.
"The mayor of the City of New York has to understand the closing of schools means a failed policy," said City Councilwoman Letitia James, who called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to declare a "state of emergency" and revoke mayoral control.
She later told the crowd, "This [meeting] represents the fact that the voices of New York City's people are not being heard."
But Acosta, the Legacy student who lives in Midtown West, also took some solace in being able to make his voice heard along with so many others.
“It's crazy," he said.
"It's the craziest thing I have ever been to,” he said as protesters screamed. “I feel like I am making history here."
The list of schools slated for phase-out or closure:
Legacy School for Integrated Studies (02M429)
Washington Irving High School (02M460) in Building M460
Manhattan Theatre Lab High School (03M283)
Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School (07X655)
Gateway School for Environmental Research and Technology (08X295)
School for Academic Careers (08X650)
Grace Dodge Career and Technical Education High School (10X660)
Aspire Preparatory Middle School (11X322)
Satellite Three Middle School (13K103)
P.S. 019 Roberto Clemente (14K019)
P.S. 22 (17K022)
International Arts Business School (17K544)
Middle School for the Arts (17K587)
General D. Chappie James Elementary School of Science (23K631)
The Anna Gonzalez Community School (32K296)
P.S. 215 Lucretia Mott (27Q215)
P.S. 14 Cornelius Vanderbilt (31R014)
Academy of Business and Community Development (13K336) (Brooklyn)
Middle School closures:
Academy of Scholarship and Entrepreneurship (11X270) (Bronx)
Frederick Douglass Academy IV Secondary School (16K393) (Brooklyn)
P.S. 161 The Crown (17K161) (Brooklyn)
P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz (23K298) (Brooklyn)
Brooklyn Collegiate: A College Board School (23K493) (Brooklyn)
With Mary Johnson and Patrick Wall