Three West Harlem secondary schools are on the chopping block for poor performance and in danger of being closed. All three schools are, or will soon be, sharing buildings with charter schools belonging to the Success Academy Network. Some in the community think their schools are being sacrificed to allow for the expansion of the well-funded and politically potent Success Academy Network. They say the DOE has not done enough to support the struggling schools.
The DOE is "starving these schools so they have an excuse to shut them down," said Noah Gotbaum, a representative for Community Education Council 3 who attended public hearings about the future of all three schools.
The three schools have had their share of troubles. Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts, the only arts school in Harlem, and Frederick Douglass Academy II (FDA II), which share a building, have below average reading and math scores and low attendance rates. Students and teachers say there are significant issues with safety and discipline and both schools have had multiple changes in leadership in recent years.
The third school, Opportunity Charter School, housed in a nearby building, also has low levels of academic achievement and a graduation rate of only 57 percent, below the city average of 65 percent. In 2009, the DOE renewed its' charter for a three year probationary period. The school also lost or fired more than a dozen teachers in the 2009-10 school year when it was under investigation for poor management.
On Monday night, parents, teachers and students rallied in support of OCS, an inclusion school where half of the students have special needs and many enter with low test scores. The school shares space with PS 214 and Harlem Success Academy IV. OCS supporters cheered "five more years," asking for a renewal of the school's charter, and touted the schools "B" on the 2010-11 DOE progress report. Taking turns at the podium, many said the school was like a family and gave them hope in otherwise desperate situations for special needs students.
"This school has helped my daughter succeed," said Alan Awal, whose daughter Amanda is a senior at OCS. Before Amanda entered OCS in 7th grade, "she could hardly read and only do a little math but now she's graduating," said her father. "She loves coming to school."
United Federation of Teachers Vice President Leo Casey said that OCS graduates special education and ESL students at twice the rate of regular public schools. "If a decision about Opportunity Charter School is made based solely on education, and not political reasons, it cannot be closed," Casey said.
Wadleigh, FDA II and Opportunity Charter are "clearly schools that don't deserve to be closed," Casey said, charging that the DOE is prepared to eliminate any obstacle in the way of Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy Network. "This is politics at its' most corrupt," he said, pointing out that more than 100 high schools have lower progress report grades than FDA II and at least 30 schools have lower grades than Wadleigh.
This month the DOE held "early engagement" hearings to solicit comments from the public on the possible closings of Wadleigh and FDA II—as required by law. Some parents feel that the DOE has already made up its mind. Plans to make room for Harlem Success Academy 1's middle school expansion in the Wadleigh/FDA II building were approved in early 2011, in spite of protests over the proposed co-location.
The DOE distributed handouts about Wadleigh's middle and high schools and FDA II's middle school at the hearings, listing why the schools are up for the review process and what community members may expect. On both handouts, the DOE stated: "Over the past several years, despite the best efforts of the community and the DOE," to support the schools they continue, "to struggle to meet basic requirements for student success."
One father said the DOE hasn't tried to improve his daughter's school. "If anything the DOE has not given us help. They've cut our budgets," said Julius Tajiddin, whose daughter is a senior at FDA II. He also heads the School Leadership Team and volunteers his time to coach the track team because the school can't afford to hire a paid coach.
The DOE handouts outlined general efforts they've made at Wadleigh and FDA II, such as working with the principals to develop leadership skills and giving teachers feedback on instruction, among other actions.
But, Gotbaum says, "we, as parents, teachers and community members, don't know what the [DOE] interventions were."