In Flushing, a protest against ‘turnaround’ mode for the city’s oldest public school

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Flushing High School. (Elizabeth Gonzalez)
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The oldest public school in New York City is facing dramatic changes, and potential closure.

On Friday, opponents of the Bloomberg administration’s school-improvement measures, among them State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, gathered in front of Flushing High School in Queens to ask for a reprieve for the 139-year-old institution.

“I think we have to give Flushing High School a chance,” Stavisky said. “I think the mayor is wrong to seek to close all the large schools. It's a landmark, you can't just switch things around.

The school has been placed in “turnaround” mode, which could entail up to half the teachers being replaced. The speakers advocated the continuation of a less jarring improvement program that was put in place last year.

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The new reform initiatives of the city Department of Education began last year with a memorandum that gave the department over $58 million to reform 44 of the city's worst schools. Flushing High made the list.

Although its graduation rate at Flushing High School is only 60 percent, the school staff asserts attendance is increasing, and that anyway 60 percent is a significant and steady improvement from the 54-percent graduation rate of three years ago.

The high school prides itself on its diverse student body, with more than 120 different dialects spoken. That diversity is also part of the school’s competitive disadvantage, the speakers noted: 20 percent of the students are English-language learners, on top of 11 percent who receive special education.

“We are already starting with a third of the student body already at a somewhat of a disadvantage because Flushing High School's door is open to everybody,” Stavisky said. “They don't cherry-pick. You want to come to school, Flushing High School is here to meet your needs.”

“We have seen time and time again the faces on the students when they are told that their school is failing, and they take it very seriously, and to heart, and feel that they are failing,” said Ken Cohen, president of the Northeast Queens branch of the NAACP. “The teachers feel that they are failing, the principals feel that they have failed, and the communities feel that they have failed their school.”

“It's disruptive to the community and to the educational process,” said the school librarian, Christine Hatami. “If someone tells you you're school is failing, how would you feel?”