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Does P.S. 332 deserve to be closed?

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By NUSHIN RASHIDIAN

Word spread within  minutes last spring around the halls of P.S. 332, a large, three-story elementary school on the desolate  Christopher Street in Brooklyn. The Brownsville school and 19 other public schools slated for closure might be spared the axe–at least temporarily.  A Manhattan Supreme Court judge decided on March 26 that city school officials had failed to follow state laws and neglected to consider community impact  when it  moved to shutter the schools.

The city is appealing the judge’s ruling, but in the meantime, the fate of all the schools is in limbo.

The temporary reprieve bought the school time to recover from the low. It was the only school in the doomed group of 19 that serves young children–kindergartners through eighth graders. It was also doing better academically than many schools that the Department of Education left open. And, as the weeks progressed, it became evident that the DOE may have closed P.S. 332 illegally.

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Despite the overall sense of uncertainty, muffled laughter often rattles outside of P.S. 332, echoing from a nearby industrial park, a tangle of gray metal and barbed wire set against the brown-brick background of the surrounding projects. Inside the elementary school is a study in contrasts. The voices of teachers and excited children sing through its hallways. Classroom walls are covered in bright yellow, blue, and red children’s work, such as drawings of George Washington Carver.

In Venicia Wilson’s elementary level special education class, students, eager to be noticed, jump out of their seats with answers. Two women are also sitting in the classroom, close to the eleven children, looking over their shoulders and encouraging focus. On Wilson’s chest, a pin reads: Yes 332. She wears it every school day.

Inside, the school doesn’t feel as if it’s lacking, but rather that it is making up for what’s absent in its students’ lives: safety, consistency and a positive environment. In its most recent Quality Review for the 2008-2009 school year, P.S. 332 was deemed proficient. The superintendent wrote: “Upon entry into the school visitors are made to feel safe and welcome.  The students move about the building with a sense of purpose and anticipation.” He noted that attendance improved, the performance of special education students improved, and overall student achievement improved.

But the chancellor’s office wanted to replace the K-8 school with a school (23K747) that serves Kindergartners through third graders who live in the zone. It also had plans to move in a charter school (Collegiate Charter) with lottery admission to serve grades 5 through 8. The latter would not have to admit students who live in the P.S. 332 zone. So, the students who do not make the lottery cut would have to attend a different school that is in the same district, but in a different zone.

Carol Gerstl is a United Federation of Teachers lawyer  was involved in the judges decision to nullify the votes to close the 19 schools, and is now working on fighting the current appeal from the DOE. Gerstl said that if the judge upholds her decision, then P.S. 332 should remain open, and the schools slated to replace it would no longer have the right to move in. But, if the judge reverses her decision as a result of the DOE’s appeal, it would “violate the law requiring that a change in zoning must be approved by the Community Education Council.”

Eliminating or altering school zones requires a vote of the district Community Education Council. No such vote was taken.

“The CEC did not discuss nor vote on any rezoning issues related to 332,” said David Grinage, president of the District 23 Community Education Council.

Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit parent advocacy group, said that the process behind closing P.S. 332 was incomplete. Haimson said that the Educational Impact Statements written for the closing schools were inadequate, as were the hearings and public processes regarding the school closings. “I think this proposal was illegal,” she said.

By shutting down P.S. 332 and no longer offering 5th-8th grade in the building, the Department of Education is essentially changing the school zone those students around P.S. 332. As a result, those children would be forced to find room in another school.

“A strong argument can be made that this was illegal,” said David Bloomfield, law professor at Brooklyn College, about the DOE’s failure to ask the CEC for a vote.

In December, New York City’s Department of Education decided that P.S. 332 needed to be shut down because the school received three Cs in a row on its annual Progress Reports, which puts a school into consideration for closure. In December, the Department of Education wrote about P.S. 332 in an Educational Impact Statement: “After consultation with internal stakeholders, the DOE determined that P.S. 332 had not made sufficient progress for its students.”

Wilson, who has taught at P.S. 332 for 12 years, heard the news on her birthday, December 3. She said that “tears were shed” on that day, and also that some things are going unsaid.

“That’s wonderful, fabricated wording to make it look good on paper,” Wilson said about the school system’s statement. “But they never had any conversation with an internal stakeholder in the school.”

Nor do the hard numbers fill out the full story. The school is home to a rising number of homeless children, many of whom require a constellation of special education services. Currently, one in every five students lives in a homeless shelter, and 15.4 percent of the children are special education students. In addition, its kindergarten classes two years ago were among the most overcrowded in the city, according to Leonie Haimson. The cap is 25. P.S. 332’s kindergartens had 31 students. Even so, this year, the school missed a B grade by 3.1 points, and by 2.9 points the year before.

Only fifth graders at P.S. 332 would be allowed to apply to the charter school, but there is no guarantee they would get in, nor would they get preference. The odds are lower for the homeless and special education students. Charter schools have a history of enrolling less than their overall fair share of homeless and special education students compared to public schools. New York City public schools have 50,000 homeless students, but only about 100 are in enrolled in the charters.

Ms. Vittoro, a paraprofessional at P.S. 332 who has helped with their high needs students for 30 years, said that she doubts the new charter school will accept many of these students.

“They take our top, the best of the crop,” she said of charter schools that have accepted P.S. 332 students. “Then, if they have a behavioral problem, they put ‘em out. Where they supposed to go?”

None of these facts were included in the Department of Education’s stated reasons for closing down P.S. 332. In fact, despite these large class sizes, the Department of Education claimed that the school needed to close because the building was  ”substantially underutilized,” according to an Independent Budget Office report comparing closing schools to non-closing schools. P.S. 332 has 500 students enrolled. The population of the two new schools poised to replace the school add up to somewhere between 480 and 540.

The administration at P.S. 332 was shocked by the death sentence. No one from central headquarters had ever visited the school, or spoken to P.S. 332 administrators about a dire need to improve. The only message from Tweed to school officials was about its progress. A Department of Education spokesperson, Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, said, “Well, a C should tell you something about how you’re doing.”

Outrage at the announcement brought 207 supporters to a hearing public held at the school last January regarding the school closure proposal. The Department of Education denied requests for a Q&A session with officials, allowing instead 38 people to speak for two minutes each. Current students, past students, parents, teachers, and even the CEC president all spoke and opposed the proposal.

Derrick Longman, a junior high student, talked about what P.S. 332 meant to him.  “I grew up in the neighborhood around here,” said Longman, who plans to attend college. ”If you walk around here, you will find many things. You will find–you will find stores.  You will find sneaker stores.  You will find a barber shop and nail salon.  But there’s one thing you can’t find, and that is academic institutions like 332.”

Another woman spoke about how P.S. 332 has been a “safe haven” in the community since 1967 and is the only “barrier-free” school in the district, meaning handicap accessible, which is necessary for the student population of P.S. 332, and is also one reason many disabled students in the district are sent there.

Students and parents were upset because they felt thrown off by the letters they received from the Department of Education telling them that their child’s school was closing. But not all parents received a letter. Sherifa Paul heard that P.S. 332 was closing on the news, and then attended the January hearing at the school with central board officials. She said that people “were speaking out about it but it was not like they was getting a response.”

Even though P.S. 332 was proposed to close in December, the school has received 58 additional students. This is despite the DOE’s argument that all of this shuffling about is so that they can “serve all students who otherwise would have attended a school proposed for closure.”

Limbo is an unpleasant state for a school that still has hundreds of students to educate. Many of the students do not understand what is going on. Wilson said that circumstances have made it harder to teach.

“Some students think school is over and we have to say, ‘You’re still going to be a student,’” she said.  “The reports make parents think the teachers aren’t doing their jobs because the DOE sends a letter to parents saying the teachers and school are consistently failing the students.”

While teachers are busy keeping chins up, they have been told by the city to polish up their resumes. Many of them worried that they would be placed in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, where teachers who are not hired full-time are paid either to do nothing or to fill-in temporarily wherever Tweed sends them. Only 50 percent of P.S. 332’s staff that meet its “qualifications” can expect placement at the new Kindergarten through third grade school that will replace P.S. 332.

Administrators from Brownsville Collegiate Charter School are still coming into P.S. 332 and scoping the building. They held their admissions lottery last Monday in P.S. 332’s auditorium. The same group returned on April 30th to do a walkthrough of the building and decide which space they want. They will pick a floor, and P.S. 332 will move accordingly with its remaining students.

“Their rationale is that the decision of the judge doesn’t affect them because the building is underutilized,” Wilson said. “So, they can still go forth with their plans because we don’t have a population to fill the entire space of the school.”

The confusion about whether or not the school is closing is greater among parents, who are farthest removed from the DOE. Vittoro says that she hopes in the coming months that parents will get involved in what’s happening, try to understand it, and keep their eyes open.

“People in this community don’t know law,” she said. “We have teachers; we don’t have lawyers.”

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