HARLEM — Supporters of the storied Choir Academy of Harlem urged city leaders Thursday night to block the school's slated closure, arguing it hasn't been given a fair chance to succeed after the sex scandal that rocked the music academy a decade ago.
It's the second time in four years the struggling middle and high school has been on the Department of Education's chopping block.
But opponents of the closure say the sixth- to 12th-grade school's problems can be partially pinned on the DOE. There have been 10 different permanent and interim principals in 12 years, almost 20 percent of its students are classified for special education and key staff, including an English Language Arts teacher, are missing, defenders said.
Ernest Bryant Jr., a vice president of Community Education Council 5, compared the situation to an orphaned child being shuttled back and forth between foster homes.
"How can a school remain stable, prosper and grow in that environment?" Bryant asked at a Thursday night Panel for Educational Policy hearing.
Still, DOE Deputy Chancellor Mark Steinberg told the crowd gathered that it's not just the DOE that's concerned — parents, students and teachers also are worried about "whether this is a safe place," he said.
Only 11 percent of middle school students are on grade level in English; in math, only 18 percent in those grades are up to par, according to DOE data.
The middle school and the high school rank below 17 percent of all city schools when it comes to how parents and students feel about safety, according to DOE surveys. Demand for the school is low and the high school's graduation rate of 61 percent is below the citywide average of 65.5 percent, DOE statistics show.
"Over half the families who attend middle school here are deciding to enroll somewhere else for high school," Steinberg said.
The safety issues exist, supporters maintained, because the entire 6-12 school has now been forced onto the third floor because of a co-location with a charter school.
The school's troubles date back to 2001 when the founder of the Harlem Boys Choir, which co-founded the Choir Academy, was found to have covered up charges that a student was sexually abused by a counselor.
The school severed ties with the now-defunct Harlem Boys Choir.
Teacher Bertram Charlton, who runs the existing choir, said the school suffered after the connection to the famed choir — which served as a carrot to help educate students — was cut. There also were successive principal changes and by 2009, the DOE placed the school on the failing list and targeted it for elimination.
A technicality prevented the school, located on Madison Avenue and East 127th Street, from closing and it scored high enough on future evaluations to survive. But the school, which saw its most recent principal shift in 2011, scored an F on its most recent school report card.
In addition to phasing out Choir Academy, the DOE plans to bring in a new district high school and co-locate a K-4 Democracy Prep Charter School in the building. Choir Academy already shares the building with Promise Academy II and an alternative high school.
New principal Melissa Vaughan now has the school on the right track, students, parents and administrators said. She has improved morale, restored an audition process for the school and focused the students on academics with mandatory Regents preparation and subject tutorials, parent coordinator Lorraine White said.
"I love the students here and I love their passion for the arts," said Vaughan, a graduate of LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. "That's what influenced me to come."
But the threat of closure has hurt the school's resolve.
"We feel like we have been through this for the longest time," White said. "The parents are tired. We feel like the DOE is going to do whatever they want at this point."
Alumni from the school spoke Thursday about how they got to travel the world as part of the Harlem Boys Choir and work with artists such as Michael Jackson and Sir Paul McCartney, and on films like "Sister Act."
The school's current choir performed at Thursday's hearing, and group of alumni also sang.
"They got to say they traveled the world but I can't say that," said senior Andre Adino. "You are going to crush a lot of student's dreams if you close this school. This school has a legacy."
Janay Salter, a ninth-grader who began middle school at Choir Academy and plays the piano and saxophone, attended the hearing with her mother Renee Salter, 45, a chef.
Janay said the third floor, where the school's located, is overcrowded.
"They shouldn't close it because a lot of the problems here can be fixed," said Janay, 14. "They need a turnaround plan."
State Sen. Bill Perkins, who supports keeping the school open, said organizers plan to fight the closure between now and March 11, when the Panel for Educational Policy votes on the proposal.
The issue of school closing and co-location should be the central issue of the upcoming mayoral election, Perkins added.
"This is a vicious attack against the the children of this community. It creates a sense of failure and perpetual instability," he said. "I hope people don't think this is just happening in Harlem and the Harlems of this city. As our children suffer your kids will suffer next."