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School Community Protests MS 399’s Slated Closure

January 9, 2009

More than 150 teachers, students, parents, and supporters rallied outside the Elizabeth Barrett Browning Middle School 399 on Dec. 17 to protest the Department of Education’s decision to close the school through a phaseout process and replace it with two smaller schools.

The sixth through eighth grade school, on 184th Street at Creston Avenue, currently enrolls 712 students. It will no longer accept new students and will shrink a grade at the end of this school year and again in 2010. Meanwhile, two new middle schools will move into the building in September and finally bump out MS 399 in 2011.

Department of Education (DOE) officials notified MS 399 on Dec. 8 amid several weeks of closure announcements. In all, 13 schools across the city are being shut down in this latest round of cuts.

MS 399′s closure is somewhat controversial.

The Children First program, the brainchild of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, began issuing annual progress reports and quality review assessments in 2007. Some schools that have received a progress report grade of D or F, or a quality review score of “less than ‘proficient,’” are being phased out, along with low-scoring schools that have failed to improve over time.

MS 399

MS 399 received a grade D in its 2007/08 progress report and a C for the year prior. But the school was deemed “proficient” in its quality reviews for both academic years.

The school community feels MS 399′s closure is arbitrary and unfair. “Phase out Klein, not 399,” was the persistent and collective chant at the rally.

Representatives from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a union, also attended the gathering to voice fury over the school’s closure.

Vincent Wojsnis, a UFT Chapter Leader for MS 399 and a teacher at the school, said the phaseout is history repeating itself. MS 399 moved into the 100-year-old building in 1998 to replace MS 319, which phased out in 2000. Before MS 319, there was another school and before that there were more, he said.

Wojsnis explained that though MS 399 has a history of poor scores, violence, and high staff turnover, former principal Yolanda Torres succeeded in smoothing the school’s gravelly terrain from 2001 to 2006 by reducing gang activity and promoting school unity.

MS 399 was taken off the state’s list of persistently dangerous schools, and the school selected a mascot (a panther), developed a school uniform policy, and cultivated an energetic and vocal student council. Unlike other struggling schools, MS 399 maintains an active and functioning parent association and leadership council, Wojsnis said.

“The school is now one of the safest places in the neighborhood,” he continued, adding that the current principal, Angelo Ledda, has been working hard to build on the gains made by Torres.

The DOE uses the English Language Arts (ELA) and Math scores when evaluating a school’s performance on the progress report. MS 399′s math scores improved in the 2007/08 school year, but ELA scores plummeted, dragging the overall progress report grade down to a D.

Wojsnis said the drop was “a blip,” as ELA scores had been increasing steadily over the last five years. The neighborhood’s large and growing immigrant population, reflected in the school’s demographics, makes it difficult for MS 399 to achieve high ELA scores, he said. Approximately a third of the school is “limited English proficient,” according to DOE statistics.

“I feel like we’re being penalized because of our immigrant population,” Wojsnis said. He feels the decision to close the school was based primarily on students’ ELA and math scores. “They didn’t look at the other stuff,” he said.

The “other stuff” includes the quality reviews for which the school received “proficient” ratings.

Though class sizes remain the same, the reduced student population allows for more individual attention to students, said DOE spokeswoman, Melody Myers. Smaller schools also encourage collaboration between teachers of the same students rather than just by department. “A social studies teacher with a low-achieving student could work with the student’s English teacher to help the student,” Myers said, adding that any change made to the school is done “to improve student outcomes.”

Wojsnis disagrees. While small group settings are very effective in helping students, smaller schools with unchanged class sizes are not, he said.

MS 399 seventh graders, Michael, Bryant, and Jeffrey, said they were sad to hear about the school’s impending closure. “It’s a good school and it’s only a few kids who mess up,” Michael said.

Yolanda Negron, who has taught ESL at MS 399 for the past 15 years, appeared resigned about the closing. “It doesn’t make a difference,” she said. Shutting down the school is simply “giving it a new number.”



One Response to “School Community Protests MS 399’s Slated Closure”

  1. julia heras on April 29th, 2009 12:04 pm

    why they need to this in 2 years.They came make other school for those students????
    plz answer this

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