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DOE Criticized For Proposed Closure of Washington Irving School

By Mary Johnson | February 1, 2012 7:58am
Senior Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky gave a presentation about the possible closure of Washington Irving High School to a fiery crowd of parents, teachers and students on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012.
Senior Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky gave a presentation about the possible closure of Washington Irving High School to a fiery crowd of parents, teachers and students on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

GRAMERCY — A fiery group of parents, teachers and students packed Washington Irving High School late Tuesday to make an impassioned plea to the city to keep their school open.

Chants like "Save Our School!" and "This is a Sham!" filled the auditorium during a meeting in which the Department of Education's Senior Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky tried to detail the controversial plan to shut down the century-old establishment, putting two new schools in its place.

“This is a place where students are told, ‘Yes, you matter,’” said Gail Wright, 60, a Washington Irving parent who spoke at the meeting and refused to relinquish the microphone until she was finished.

“You don’t have to be the kid snatching somebody’s purse,” she added. “Even more important, you don’t have to be the kid selling drugs to put food on the table.”

Washington Irving High School is one of several schools co-located in 40 Irving Place — a building commonly referred to as the Washington Irving campus. The other high schools in the building include the Gramercy Arts High School, once part of Washington Irving High School, the High School for Language and Diplomacy and the International High School at Union Square.

But only Washington Irving, with its 1,000-plus students, is slated to be phased out. That means the school will stop accepting incoming classes while the remaining students will be allowed to graduate from Washington Irving or transfer to another school.

Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already announced that he would like one new high school to be dedicated to software engineering. The other incoming school, Polakow-Suranksy said at that meeting, would likely focus on the health sciences.

The plan has not yet been voted on or approved. It will come before the Panel for Educational Policy — which is stacked with mayoral appointees — for a vote on Feb. 9 at the Brooklyn Technical High School.

The meeting on Tuesday, which dragged on for nearly four hours, offered supporters a chance to fight for its survival. And the debate centered largely on statistics.

Washington Irving has been struggling for years. After improving for several years in a row, it received an F rating in its most recent progress report for the 2010-2011 academic year. Poor attendance and a graduation rate around 48 percent, well below the city average of 65 percent, factored into the failing grade.

At the same time, only 30 percent of the graduating class of 2010 enrolled in either a two-year or four-year college, according to DOE statistics. Those numbers placed Washington Irving in the bottom 15 percent of schools citywide.

The school was marked for “transformation” last year and given tens of thousands in federal dollars to turn itself around.

After only three months, though, the DOE announced that Washington Irving’s time was up.

“We know it's possible for a school to organize differently and get very different outcomes for kids,” said Polakow-Suransky at the meeting. “I think we know that we can do better. The question is how can we do better?”

Parents and teachers have repeatedly argued, however, that the statistics are skewed and do not paint an accurate picture of the situation at Washington Irving.

Poor attendance and students who register but never show up artificially drag down the graduation rates, they claim, and the school serves a higher proportion of special education and high needs children than many institutions around the city.

Tamara Rowe, a member of the Community Education Council for School District 2, noted at the meeting that Washington Irving has a population that is 93 percent black and Hispanic — demographics that are far different from other schools in the same building and from those the mayor has opened in recent years.

The school has also accepted transfers from other struggling schools that have been phased out, she added.

“What’s quite dismaying is how segregated schools have become,” Rowe added. “Why does the DOE systematically steer the students with the greatest needs to already struggling schools?”

Polakow-Suransky said Washington Irving’s population of special needs students, which hovers around 16 percent, is only slightly above the city average of 15 percent. New schools with student populations similar to Washington Irving, he added, have seen graduation rates around 70 and 80 percent.

“So it’s just not true that with high-need kids, schools cannot succeed,” Polakow-Suransky said. “I think the challenge here is to think about how to invest the talent that exists in this building in building new schools that are going to get a different set of results.”

But Marian Burnbaum, who runs the law and public service program at Washington Irving, disputed the use of a city average because that could be the result of some schools being overloaded with special needs students with others enrolling comparatively few.

“The system should embrace diversity,” she said. “It’s not the school that needs reform. It’s the system.”

Several parents and students at the meeting applauded the programs at Washington Irving that cater to those students who are at-risk because of tough family situations or learning disabilities.

Sharon Talbot, for one, said she has seen her son’s reading ability jump four levels in proficiency.

And Ishmael Green, a 19-year-old senior at Washington Irving, said the school was part of the reason he is heading to Manhattan Community College after graduation, despite living in a shelter during part of his education.

Even Washington Irving alumni who are still a part of the school expressed their dismay that an institution that takes in struggling students may soon be gone.

“I’m here because I want to be here,” said Pearl Dixon, a graduate of Washington Irving who began teaching there in 1992. “You’re not just closing a facility. You’re closing a legacy.”