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Brownsville School Remains Open Despite City's Efforts

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For over half a year, the fates of 19 New York City schools have been in limbo. As summer came, students, teachers, and parents were left unsure about which classmates they'd see, which borough they'd be teaching in, or what neighborhood they'd be sending their child to in September.

The Department of Education declared in December that these schools had failed, and hastily proposed a sweeping series of closures. But their plan was halted last spring when a Manhattan Supreme Court judge decided that city school officials had failed to follow state education law by not providing adequate information, such as community impact, on the Educational Impact Statements that serve as the DOE's justification for why a school should close. Earlier this month, the Appellate Court, First Division upheld that decision.

The story of P.S. 332, one of the doomed schools, is an example of the DOE's neglect in one of the most arduous educational tug of wars in New York City this year. The large, three-story elementary school on the desolate Christopher Street in Brownsville is the only school in the group of 19 that serves young children--kindergartners through eighth graders. It is also doing better academically than many schools that the Department of Education left open. Furthermore, the DOE's plan to close P.S. 332 required them to take a step they chose to ignore, possibly violating yet another education law.

The chancellor's office wanted to replace the K-8 school with a new school (23K747) that serves kindergartners through third graders. It also had plans to move in East Brooklyn Collegiate Charter School, one of seven Collegiate schools run by Uncommon Schools, a company that has over 15 charters in New York and New Jersey. The charter will use lottery admission to serve grade 5--and eventually 6 through 8--and would not have to admit students who live in the P.S. 332 zone. So, students going into grades five through eight who do not make the charter's lottery cut would eventually be forced out of their zone, and into another school in the district.

Before the DOE could rezone these children, a vote from the district Community Education Council was required. "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.

In neglecting to ask for a vote from the CEC, the DOE did "violate the law requiring that a change in zoning must be approved by the Community Education Council," said Carol Gerstl, a United Federation of Teachers lawyer. But this oversight surfaced after the judge had already put a halt on the closures.

The path toward uncertainty for P.S. 332 began last fall. The school was deemed "Proficient" in its Quality Review for the 2008-2009 school year. The superintendent noted that attendance improved, the performance of special education students improved, and overall student achievement improved.

But, in December, New York City's Department of Education decided that P.S. 332 needed to be shut down because the school received three C grades in a row on its annual Progress Reports, which puts a school into consideration for closure. Even so, last year, the school missed a B grade by just 3.1 points, and by 2.9 points the year before. 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."

Venicia Wilson, who has taught at P.S. 332 for 12 years, heard the news on her birthday, Dec. 3. She said that some things went 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 did 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 more than 15 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 of Class Size Matters. P.S. 332 had 31 students per kindergarten class, but the cap is 25.

In fact, despite these large class sizes, the Department of Education claimed that 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 added up to somewhere between 480 and 540.

The administration at P.S. 332 was shocked by the death sentence. They say no one from central headquarters had ever spoken to P.S. 332 administrators about a dire need to improve. The only message from Tweed to school officials was a letter grade on the annual progress report. 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. "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.

Sherifa Paul heard on the news that her child's school, P.S. 332, was set to close. She attended the January hearing at the school with central board officials because she never received a letter from the school, and wanted to know what was going on. She said that people there "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 received 58 additional students by the year's end. This was after 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."

Despite the judge's March ruling that invalidated the DOE's proposals, administrators from Brooklyn East Collegiate Charter School continued to visit P.S. 332 and scope out the building. They held their admissions lottery last April in P.S. 332's auditorium. The same group returned later that month to do a walkthrough of the building and decide which space they want.

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

This September, Brooklyn East Collegiate Charter School is moving into P.S. 332's building, and the K-8 could very well be on the chopping block again next year.