MOTT HAVEN — Shanequa Johnson walked her 9-year-old son, Devine Houston, home from P.S. 369 recently when he stopped and looked up at her.
“They’re closing the school forever,” he said.
Johnson was taken aback. When she later spoke with her son's teacher during a conference, the teacher confirmed that the Department of Education was considering shutting down the school.
“This is really a shock to me,” said Johnson, 40. “I feel like this is the best school in the community.”
The mother huddled last Thursday outside of the school on East 140th Street with several other parents and their children, before marching to a nearby post office and mailing hundreds of student letters to the DOE pleading to spare their school from closure.
"I think that this school shud stay open," one student wrote using that spelling, "because we stil have a lot to learn."
Another student mentioned skills she had learned in her math and writing classes, concluding, “This school is special.”
Last month, the DOE included P.S. 369, also known as Young Leaders Elementary School, on a list of 36 struggling elementary and middle schools being eyed for big changes, including intensive support, new leadership or closure.
A total of 217 schools scored poorly enough on this year’s progress reports to be eligible for closure, according to DOE policy — up from 116 schools last year, ostensibly because of harder state tests.
The department narrowed that number to 36 after evaluating schools’ past performances, observational reviews, state rankings, ongoing improvement efforts and other factors, the DOE said. Officials will add high schools to that list after Thanksgiving, the DOE noted.
P.S. 369, which has earned a "D" on its past three progress reports, did poorly enough on all those measures to be included in the group of 36, the DOE said. Fifteen other Bronx schools also made that list — more than from any other borough.
Karen Collins, P.S. 369’s principal, who did not participate in Thursday's rally, acknowledged the school “has a long way to go,” but said it has made significant progress in the five years since it opened.
She noted that while only 20 percent of P.S. 369’s students passed the state’s English exams last year and 26 percent passed math, those numbers have increased each of the past three years, which DOE records confirm.
The school’s attendance rate recently reached 97.8 percent, Collins said, which far exceeds the citywide average of 92 percent, according to DOE figures as of last Thursday. (The DOE website shows the school’s year-to-date average to be 95 percent.)
Collins has assigned “fabulous” literacy, math and special-education specialists to coach teachers this year, she said. And almost the entire staff attended two paid but voluntary professional development days before the start of this school year to improve their classroom management skills, she added.
“We’ve been so smart and worked really, really hard,” she said. “Which is why it would be a travesty to shut us down at this point.”
Collins also described a thicket of obstacles that can trip up any progress.
In 2008, the city closed the struggling P.S. 220, renamed it P.S. 369 and brought in Collins, who hired some new staff.
Few experienced teachers wanted to essentially take over a failed school, Collins said. As a result, the current staff, while talented, is mostly new to the profession, she explained.
The student population also presents special challenges, Collins added.
About one-third are not native English speakers, compared to 12 percent of students citywide, according to DOE figures. Also, 17 percent of students require special education, compared to 15 percent citywide.
Just 8 percent of the neighborhood’s students graduate high school ready for college — the lowest rate in the city, according to an analysis by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
Despite the students’ urgent need for extra attention, Collins said, the school has not had a full after-school program since it opened. And some $650,000 in state funds the school received last year for supplemental services were reduced to $58,000 this year, she added.
“We have the potential to make big changes,” she said. “But everything can’t rest on the shoulders of the school.”
In an email, a DOE spokesman said the agency had offered numerous supports to the school, including staff development, leadership training and operational assistance.
At last Thursday’s rally, several parents praised the school, saying their children are making steady advancements and that teachers are accessible, even sharing cell phone numbers.
Ultimatums are not what the school needs, they added.
“Closing a school is basically putting a Band-Aid on a wound — you’re covering it up, but you’re not fixing anything,” said Love Andujar, whose 7-year-old son attends P.S. 369.
“What we need are resources — an after-school program, more teachers — so that we can bring these grades up,” she added.
Genesis Ferrera, 10, said she had attended P.S. 369 since first grade.
“I want to finish here,” she said. “And when I go to middle school, I want to visit here and see all my old teachers.”
The DOE will hold a series of community meetings beginning in February to discuss possible interventions at the 36 targeted lower-level schools, as well as at some high schools, a spokesman said. The DOE will then create a final list of schools with proposed changes, which an appointed education panel will begin voting on in March 2013.