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City's Education Panel Votes to Close Washington Irving

By Mary Johnson | February 10, 2012 7:21am
From left: Seniors Elizabeth Maddox, Veronique Bennett, Jennifer Diaz and Sonia Appan came to the PEP meeting on Feb. 9, 2012, to protest the closure of Washington Irving.
From left: Seniors Elizabeth Maddox, Veronique Bennett, Jennifer Diaz and Sonia Appan came to the PEP meeting on Feb. 9, 2012, to protest the closure of Washington Irving.
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DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

BROOKLYN — A vigorous battle to save Washington Irving High School came to an end on Thursday night as the city’s panel for educational policy voted to close down the century-old school for good.

Parents, teachers and students from Washington Irving joined roughly 2,500 people at the meeting, which dragged on until past midnight at Brooklyn Tech High School.

The crowd was raucous, employing Occupy Wall Street-like intensity to fight not only to keep Washington Irving open, but also to preserve the other 22 New York City schools on the chopping block.

“How can you tell students to their face that you’re going to close our school when you didn’t even give us a chance?” said Sonia Appan, a senior at Washington Irving who attended the meeting Thursday night. “It’s a slap in the face.”

No schools were spared the ax on Thursday night. Despite impassioned pleas from a variety of elected officials, parents and teachers condemning the school phase-outs, the panel (known as the PEP) voted across the board to close down schools in favor of putting new ones in their place.

For Washington Irving, that means the school will stop accepting new students.

Then, beginning in fall of 2012, two new schools will replace Washington Irving inside the same building at 40 Irving Place in Gramercy. One of the new schools would focus on software engineering. The other would specialize in health sciences.

Washington Irving was marked for closure late last year after several years of struggling, Department of Education officials said. It had shown some improvement in recent years, but in 2010-2011, it dropped back down to an overall F rating and a graduation rate of less than 50 percent.

The school had been marked for “transformation” last year and given tens of thousands in federal dollars to turn itself around. But just three months later, the DOE announced its intention to close the it instead. 

Before the vote on Thursday night, many of Washington Irving’s most ardent supporters said they felt the vote was all but decided. But that didn’t stop them from making one final stand.

Tamara Rowe, a member of the District 2 Community Education Council, called the planned closures “a travesty” and made note of the particular void Washington Irving fills as a destination for children with special needs.

“In these new schools, there are only 1 percent self-contained classrooms,” Rowe said, referring to students whose disabilities require dedicated classes.

“In our most struggling schools, we have 6 to 7 percent,” she continued. “They are set up to fail by the DOE.”

Calls to do away with the PEP rang out throughout the meeting, with some declaring Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s control over the city’s educational system a “dictatorship.”

Rowe said she was part of a group that initially opposed mayoral control over the city’s schools.

“People didn’t get it. Now they get it,” she said. “There’s no accountability, except for an election every four years.”

Washington Irving was also the subject of some controversy among panelists on Thursday night. Patrick Sullivan, a panel member since 2007, raised concerns about the loss of Washington Irving, along with several other prospective closures.

“I don’t see how closing this school is going to help,” Sullivan said to his fellow panelists. “When you close these schools, you condemn these kids that are in the building.”

But Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s senior deputy chancellor, disagreed.

“We’ve seen incremental progress [at Washington Irving], but the progress really has been very slow,” Polakow-Suransky said, referencing the school’s graduation rate of 48 percent for the 2010-2011 academic year.

“Hundreds and hundreds of kids are not getting what they need, are not getting prepared,” he added.

In the end, the vote to close Washington Irving was not unanimous. Four panel members, including Sullivan, voted against it.

But the proposal still passed, as did those aimed at starting the two new schools in place of Washington Irving beginning in 2012.