When the New York City Department of Education last week released its updated list of 19 schools that are at risk of being shut down or phased out because of poor performance, one group of Northattan parents were relieved, because their school was no longer on it.
But for another group, the fight to keep their school open continues.
The original list of 47 at-risk schools, released in October, included Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Academy II and the Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts. While the two schools share the same building on 114th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, FDA II was not on the latest list, while Wadleigh’s middle school is among five other middle schools that may be truncated. If this happens, no additional students will be enrolled in the school, and each year a grade will be eliminated until the middle school is completely phased out.
Wadleigh was established over 100 years ago and is currently Harlem’s only Performing Arts school, with 84 students in its middle school and 446 in high school. Frederick Douglass was established in 2000 as a middle school and expanded to include a high school in 2003, when it moved into Wadleigh’s building. It currently has 132 middle schoolers and 280 high schoolers.
Since the original announcement about low performance schools, parents, educators and community leaders waged different strategies to keep their respective schools from closing. Last Monday, Wadleigh’s speakers series featured professor and community activist Cornel West. When he learned about the school’s woes, he vowed to help keep the school running. According to DNAinfo.com, West said, “I want each and every one of you to know that any service I can render to keep this school where it is, just let me know. Dialogue, negotiation or protest.”
Parents are also being vocal about their support for the school. “I have had a long-term relationship with Wadleigh,” said Annette Nanton, who has a son in the 11th grade. Two of her older children graduated from Wadleigh in 2008 and 2009 and are now in college. Although the DOE’s decision will affect only Wadleigh’s 84 middle schoolers, Nanton is also worried about the high school. “If you take middle school away from us now,” she said, “what is the future for our high school?”
Nanton finds the school “like a community” for her family. “Don’t just shut the school down,” she said. “Give more resources to support the school to get a better grade.”
Wadleigh received a “C” on the education department’s progress report card for the 2009-2010 school year and a “D” for the 2010-2011 term.
A DOE source, who was not authorized to speak publicly and so asked not to be identified, said there’s a possibility for a poorly performing school to remain open if it can show that there has been some improvement and if the community galvanizes to show its support.
Harriet Fortson, chairwoman of the education committee of the NAACP Mid-Manhattan branch, said the overall grade fails to reflect Wadleigh’s extracurricular programs and their positive impact on the children. The school “does excellent work for the kids,” said Fortson. She said that 20 to 30 Wadleigh graduates visit the school regularly to assist students with schoolwork. Its medical program offers opportunities for students to learn about health care from professionals, and the school’s cooking program provided the reception during West’s visit.
Valentina Santos, 17, a student at Wadleigh, is saddened by the possibility of the middle school’s being truncated. “We’re still trying to do some stuff so they won’t close the school,” she said.
For Frederick Douglass, the outcome was better. After the school was listed as a closing target in October and education department hearings were held in November, the Parents Association from Frederick Douglass drafted a letter “In Support Against FDA II and Wadleigh School Closures.” This letter was disseminated throughout the neighborhoods to churches, local businesses and elected officials. Before they knew their school was no longer endangered, parents from the school also met with parents from other low-performing schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx to express their dismay about the DOE’s potential plans.
Also before the announcement, Frederick Douglass principal, Osei Owusu-Afriyie, who took the job in 2010, said he hoped that the DOE would realize that his school had fallen on hard times a few years ago, but was making progress.
“We have changed our curriculum,” said Owsui-Afriyie. “We’ve increased our academic support for middle school students who come in with any significant needs in math and English Language Arts.” The principal also said the school is trying to engage more parents and students to make sure teachers are well prepared. “We’ve just connected back into the roots of the school, which is a college preparatory institution,” said Owsui-Afriyie.
It’s not clear yet why Frederick Douglass was spared, considering it received a “C” in 2009-2010 and an “F” in 2010-2011, but it’s to the relief of many parents like Carleen Jones, the PTA co-president. “We are grateful” that the school is now off the list, said Jones. She attributes the school’s failing grades to the former principal’s less-than effective management. “Everything is going in a positive way,” said Jones, who has faith in the new principal and the school’s future. “The school can have a great turnaround.”
Jones has a daughter on Frederick Douglass’ honor roll and another daughter who is a graduate and now a third-year college student on the dean’s honor list. “The school has had an impact on both of their lives,” said Jones.
Akeylah Brown, a 17-year-old senior at Frederick Douglass, said the school was doing poorly until its new principal came on board. “Our old principal did not enforce the school uniforms or the school rules,” said Brown. Its former principal, Latasha Greer, has since moved to Florida.
Elizabeth-Ann Hendrickson, whose son is in the seventh grade at Frederick Douglass and is spending his second year here, said: “My son does well. I haven’t invested the time to see exactly how the school is performing years ago as opposed to right now. But as far as right now, everything they’ve put into place works for me.”
Another hearing with the education department was held at Wadleigh on Wednesday, where parents questioned why some F-grade schools in the city are not pinpointed for closure, but the D-grade Wadleigh is. Parents also argued that some of Wadleigh’s programs, such as the tutoring program, help middle schoolers start to prepare for college.
The education department said at the hearing that it will conduct at least two more public hearings in the following two months before it makes the final decision about the future of the middle school.