Plan to close Bryant draws ire at hearing

Hundreds gather at high school to voice opposition to mayor’s plan

The rumblings started low at first — emanating from the football players in the middle of the room, the student government leaders perched closer to the stage and the parents dispersed throughout Bryant High School’s auditorium —and grew until loud boos drowned out a deputy schools chancellor, whose voice was no match for the hundreds of people protesting the city’s plan to shutter the institution established in 1889.

“Save our school! Save our school! Save our school!” shouted many of those attending Tuesday night’s public hearing on Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to close Bryant in Long Island City after the school year wraps up and reopen it with a new name and up to 50 percent of the teachers replaced.

For hours, students, educators, parents and elected officials stood, one by one, at a microphone and wove an intricate and emotional narrative about a school they hope the city will remove from its closure list.

In January, Bloomberg proposed closing 33 schools, including eight in Queens, that are in a federal improvement program due to such issues as low test scores and graduation rates.

However, city officials announced this week that they have dropped seven of those schools from the list, none of which are in the borough.

The city Panel for Educational Policy, made up primarily of mayoral appointees who have never rejected a proposal from Bloomberg, is slated to vote on the closures at its April 26 hearing.

“When we graduate, we want to come back and see the teachers we’ve loved for the past four years,” said Sotiria Zouroudis, a senior at Bryant and the student body president. “Every coach, every advisor, every teacher, we love. This isn’t only affecting the teachers, it’s affecting the students. Who are we going to turn to if we have a problem, an issue?”

Because Bryant, which the city had targeted for possible closure last year as well, was placed on the state’s persistently low-achieving list, the city had to choose from one of four federally mandated improvement programs for the institution. Last year, the city bypassed the “turnaround” option to close the school and reopen it with new staff and instead selected what is known as the “transformation” model, which brings in up to $2 million in federal funds to help the school in areas like professional development and graduation rates. The program was expected to last about three years, after which the city would decide whether or not it had improved enough to remain open.

But Bloomberg axed plans to continue the transformation program less than half a year into it and instead intends to implement the turnaround model.

While the mayor and city education officials had said for months they expected about half the teachers to be replaced at the targeted schools, DOE representatives have recently changed their tune and said at a number of public meetings, including the hearing at Bryant, that the department aims to replace no set percentage.

Deputy Schools Chancellor Lauren Rodriguez, the city’s top education official at the hearing, also said the school’s new principal, Namita Dwarka, would remain at the helm.

She also stressed that all current students would have a seat at Bryant next year.

“The graduation rates at Bryant have been low for years,” Rodriguez said. “Last year’s four-year graduation rate was 57 percent —well below the citywide graduation rate of 65 percent.”

But teachers, including Ann Balash, said the numbers are misleading. Numerous educators stressed that the school has a large percentage of students hailing from other countries, with many starting school at Bryant knowing little to no English.

These students, Balash and others said, need more time to graduate from high school, and she said that the school’s six-year graduation rate was 66 percent last year.

“Punishing the school by shutting it down is punishing us for providing for the needs of our students,” Balash said.

Linda Leffon, a counselor at Bryant, also noted that the school’s graduation rate had been increasing until last year, “when the Department of Education pulled the rug out from under us” by announcing it wanted to close the school.

Elected officials, as well as Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens borough president’s appointee to the city PEP, said they believe the school would improve if the city continues the transformation model, which educators had anticipated would last for three years.

“The number of students graduating with Regents diplomas is going up every year,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), a graduate of Bryant. “Ending the life of Bryant would be striking a blow to the heart of this community.”

Van Bramer, state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) held a protest against the mayor’s plan prior to the hearing, during which time an enthusiastic crowd, including Community Education Council 30 President Isaac Carmignani and Democratic District Leader Costa Constantinides, slammed the closure proposal.

“It’s time to stop the demonization of our teachers and administrators who’ve given their lives to our children,” Gianaris said at the hearing.

Simotas, another graduate of Bryant, also urged the mayor to remove her alma mater from the list.

“The mayor decided not to close seven schools, and I commend him for that,” Simotas said. “But none of those schools are in Queens, the most diverse borough in New York City. What does that say?”

While the PEP is expected to pass the closures, Fedkowskyj, a vocal critic of the mayor’s plan, said he will propose a resolution at the April 26 meeting calling on the city to abandon the turnaround model at each of the 26 schools still on the list.

“This is the most flawed policy I’ve seen during my time on the PEP,” Fedkowskyj said at the hearing of the closure plan.