16 Jul For a Second Year, Lawsuits and Protests Help Stop School Closings (NY)

July 16, 2010

By: Juan Gonzalez
Source: New York Daily News

For the past 27 years, Gail Drillings has been a special education teacher at Columbus High School in the Bronx  – and she has loved every minute of it.

"It’s always been a real neighborhood school, a place where the kids and teachers really cared," she said yesterday.

But until Wednesday night, Drillings had no idea what would happen to her school come September.

Chancellor Joel Klein has labeled Columbus a "failing" school and slated it for closing in the fall. Along with 18 other schools across the city, Columbus was supposed to be phased out and replaced by a new school.

But the staff and hundreds of Columbus parents refused to accept Klein’s master plan.

So did parents and teachers at the other schools. They turned out in huge numbers at public meetings earlier this year and organized demonstrations against a rubber-stamp approval of the closings by the mayor’s Panel for Educational Policy. After the vote, the parents joined with the United Federation of Teachers and the NAACP to file a lawsuit.

It is unfair to compare test scores at Columbus, which has a higher percentage of English language learners and special education pupils than average, to most city high schools, they say.

Columbus and the other big schools started to receive more at-risk pupils when the educrats at Tweed eliminated zoned high schools and began centralizing admissions, Drillings said. But they never got more resources. Meanwhile, high-achieving students were siphoned off to specialized high schools or charter schools.

Klein’s people wouldn’t listen to parent concerns. They refused even to follow the requirements of state law for such an important act as closing a school.

Two separate court decisions during the past few months have said as much.

The Department of Education "failed to comply with the substantive requirements of education law," an appellate court ruled two weeks ago.

The city was "providing nothing more than boilerplate information" about the impact of closings on neighborhoods, the court found. Moreover, it was not involving community education councils in the decisions, as the law requires.

This is the second time in two years that lawsuits have forced Klein to rescind school closings. The same thing happened with his attempt to close three Harlem elementary schools in 2009. Still, he and Mayor Bloomberg refuse to concede their methods are wrong.

"There’s a whole bunch of kids that at, least for one year, will get a terrible education that…they’ll probably never recover from," an angry Bloomberg said after the latest ruling. Then on Wednesday, the city announced a deal with the UFT. Columbus and the other 18 schools will all remain open – at least for the next school year.

As part of the deal, the targeted schools will now be sent extra staff from the city’s central pool of teachers that have no permanent assignments.

"I’m thrilled that our school is saved," Drillings said. "And we’re finally getting the extra resources we’ve needed."

Some of the proposed replacement schools will open in September, but they will have to share space with the existing schools. The UFT even agreed to house one o f Klein’s new schools temporarily in its own headquarters.

A superintendent who keeps trampling on the wishes of parents and teachers would be shown the door in most suburban school districts in America.

But in this town, some praise Klein as a great reformer. At least our judges understand no public official is above the law.

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