By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The high school graduating class of the Choir Academy of Harlem is smaller, but stronger, after enduring years of controversy and threats of closure by the city, speakers said at the commencement ceremony Monday night.
"We went through a tough time," said Salutatorian Ileana Gonzalez, who plans to attend Mercy College next year and hopes to be a police detective one day. "But I know my school will survive and even get bigger."
Years after surviving a scandal by one of the school's founders and being targeted by the city for closure, 70 percent of the 39 graduating seniors in the school's Class of 2011 are going to college, according to Principal A. Ellen Parris.
"It says they are determined and have the will power and intellect and are just in need of a chance to show what they can do," Parris said.
The school's troubles began when the founder of the Harlem Boys Choir, who co-founded the Choir Academy, was found to have covered up charges that a student was sexually abused by a counselor.
After the school severed ties with the now defunct choir, the DOE placed the school on the failing list in 2009 and targeted it for elimination.
But a technicality prevented the closing, and the school, on Madison Avenue and East 127th Street, scored well enough on future evaluations to survive.
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel referenced the school's struggles during his keynote address, saying, "Politicians have decided which schools succeed and which don't."
"You come from a school that ain't been no crystal stair," he said referencing the Langston Hughes poem about triumphing over struggle.
Since being pulled off of the closure list, school officials have said they face another challenge: the threat of being squeezed out by having to share their space with the Harlem Children's Zone's charter schools.
The 350-student school already operates on the third floor because it shares space with kindergarten through sixth-grade students at Promise Academy II charter school. The city's Panel for Educational Policy voted Monday night to allow the charter school to add new classes for seventh and eighth graders inside the same building.
The panel also approved the temporary co-location of the fourth-grade class of Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy I to the same floor of the Madison Avenue building where Choir Academy's 350 students currently take classes.
Harlem Children's Zone officials say the new co-locations are only temporary until they complete a new building. DOE officials say the building is underutilized.
Carlton Berkley, PTA president of Choir Academy of Harlem, said the situation with the potential closing and co-location caused some students who would have been seniors to leave the school. He still sees some of those kids around the neighborhood and knows a few who did not graduate on time from their new school.
"We would have had a bigger graduating class if the DOE hadn't done what it did," said Berkley. "Sometimes it feels like we are still on the chopping block."
Berkley said the co-location has had other effects on students as well. After a group of young men became disillusioned that the co-location plan meant no more open gym for them to shoot hoops, Berkley started showing up before school started at 7 a.m. to open the gym for the teens.
He chatted with them while they shot hoops and talked about the importance of graduating, and on Monday night, all six of those young men received their diplomas.
"It says we have success here," Berkley said Monday, after giving an emotional speech at graduation.
Teachers like Amber Harrison said the school's struggles have had a silver lining for those who remain.
"It's been a struggle for these kids but it inspired me to be a better teacher," she said.