CROWN HEIGHTS — The city voted to shutter 24 low performing schools Thursday after hours of impassioned pleas from parents, teachers and students urging a halt to the plans.
The Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a proposed closing, rubber stamped the closure of schools including Harlem’s Bread & Roses Integrated Arts High School and Hell’s Kitchen’s High School of Graphic Communication Arts.
"To me, this is a great opportunity," said Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who said the goal was to give each school a fresh start "to really raise itself to the next level."
While the turnout was far lower and emotions less charged than at previous closure hearings, nearly 150 parents, teachers and advocates signed up to testify on their schools' behalf at the Prospect Heights Campus in Crown Heights.
"This proposal is so wrong, it is so absolutely proven wrong," said Rosemary Wildeman, 69, a counselor at John Adams in Queens, one of the schools on the chopping block, who begged the members to vote "no."
"I don't think Flushing should close," urged Davon Pearsall-Evans, 16, a junior at Flushing High School, who said his teachers work hard trying to deal with difficult students, volunteering countless hours of their time.
Ahead of the meeting, advocates, teachers and elected officials rallied at City Hall in ponchos in the rain to protest the vote.
"I'm sorry that his [Mayor Michael Bloomberg's] education legacy is in shambles, but don't take it out on the kids," said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.
"None of these schools should be in question. This is political, this is not about schools," said Mulgrew, who chose to boycott the hearing, dismissing the vote as a rubber stamp.
"They've made it clear that it's not a body that responds to anybody," he said. "Everything's choreographed. It's a big charade."
Bloomberg dropped the closure-plan bombshell during his State of the City speech in January, after the city and teachers’ union failed to reach a deal on a teacher evaluation system.
By invoking a special "turnaround" model, the department can fire half of teachers at a school without following union rules, by closing and reopening them under different names this fall.
The move could potentially make the city eligible for $50 million in federal funding. But the state has not yet approved the applications, and a final decision is not expected until June.
Officials stressed Thursday that it would be up to principals to decide how many teachers from each school to re-hire, and said they would be willing to risk the federal money by rehiring more than 50 percent of old teachers at some of the schools, if that's what principals deem best.
"That may mean in some circumstances that there might not be [federal] funding for these schools," Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief academic officer, said.
Hiring decisions will be made jointly by a school's principal, the UFT and DOE, and teachers who aren't rehired will be placed in a reserve pool, where they will continue being paid.
Nonetheless, the decision elicited outrage from the union and others who accused the city of "union-busting," and said the city should be investing more in — not shuttering — schools that are most in need.
"You clearly have failed our children," said Brooklyn City Councilwoman Letitia James, who said that school closures should only be used as a last resort.
Jill Friedman, 55, a special ed teacher at John Adams, said that shuttering the school will mean kids will lose teachers they've spent years growing to trust.
"These kids have special needs and compliance issues. We give them a lot more than credits," she said, arguing that instead of experimental teaching models, what kids really need are smaller class sizes and more individual attention.
"I feel like the kids are suffering most."
Some of the panel members were also skeptical, accusing the city of creating disruption and confusion by aggressively pushing an experimental model that might not work.
"We don't believe the turnaround model is going to work," said Queens representative Dmytro Fedkowskyj, one of four panel member not appointed by the mayor, who at one point introduced a failed resolution barring the model's use.
"I would say it's all about politics and not what's in the best interest" of students, he said.
The city had originally pegged 33 schools for closure, but made a surprise announcement Thursday morning that two beloved high schools, Bushwick Community High School in Brooklyn and Grover Cleveland High School in Queens, had been saved.
Both Cleveland and Bushwick received 'B's on their most recent progress reports, and had received an outpouring of community support, with many parents, alumni and students begging the city to save their schools.
An additional seven schools, including Harlem Renaissance High School, were spared the ax earlier this month, after DOE officials deemed they had made promising progress.
Paola de Kock, the president of the Citywide Council on High Schools, said that the last-minute reversal was proof that the city hadn't spent enough time assessing and working with schools.
"All it shows is how arbitrary and downright cruel the turnaround plan is," she said.
Others accused the city of favoring "politically connected" schools. Queens Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan graduated from Cleveland and had urged the city to remove it from the list.
Officials dismissed the allegations, arguing that none of the proposed closures had been popular with local pols.
The meeting was also attended by dozens of parents and students from the Success Academy and Democracy Prep charter schools, whose expansions plans were also up for vote.
"We need more space for our school," said West Harlem's Shawn Thomas, 39, whose daughter Taylor is a fifth grader at East Harlem's Democracy Prep.
She said that the school has been a breath of fresh air versus a traditional public school.
"I love it. It's the best," she said, praising the school's curriculum and academic standards.
Nakisha Crown, whose 9 year-old son Stephon attends Harlem Success Academy, also advocated on behalf of her charter's expansion.
"It's wonderful. It's like a family," she said of the school.