Queens schools set for shuttering get squeezed instead

First, the city Department of Education wanted to close Newtown and Flushing high schools. Thwarted, it now seeks to downsize them while it crams new schools into their buildings — and Queens parents are objecting.

A court order prevented the planned closures last year. And so the two high schools, located in Corona and Flushing, opened this past fall amid uncertainty and crowded conditions. Flushing High School currently has 2,968 students enrolled, in a building with a capacity of 2,259. Newtown is operating at close to its capacity of 2,396.

This week, the Department of Education held public hearings on plans to add three new institutions at the campuses of the two high schools, a process known as “co-location.”

One would be located at Newtown, and two others are headed to Flushing. In a filing with the Panel on Education Policy, the department justified the move as stemming from “central goals to create new school options that will better serve future students and the community at large.” It did not return calls and emails for comment.

Parents say they are perplexed and worry co-location hinders both schools’ chances for success in the future.

“How are they going to separate the kids in the school?…they’re going to fight over the cafeteria, they’re going to fight over the resource room,” said Dorothy Manning of Forest Hills, whose son James is 17 and will be graduating from Flushing this June. “They don’t have enough computers in the resource room for the kids that are already here. How are they going to bring in two more schools?”

Manning is just one of many parents who say they do not want the co-location plan to go into effect. Carlos De Leon, whose son, Carlos Jr., is a freshman at Flushing, said he expects the co-location might bring “a lot of benefits for some kids but not all.”

Parents at Newtown have also expressed concerns about the planned co-locations.

“We’re trying to fight and have a petition to not bring another school into this building,” said Debora Martinez of Elmhurst, president of the parent-teacher association at Newtown High School. Her son is in the 10th grade at the school. “We would have to share everything — the cafeteria, the gym. I don’t understand why they want to bring more kids into this school if we are over-packed.”

To accommodate the new arrivals, the Department of Education plans to reduce Newtown’s enrollment by more than 300 students and Flushing’s by almost 900. Shrinking the enrollment at both high schools will not, however, create more space.

“You’re reducing enrollment, but you’re bringing in new schools and will have the same number of students,” said Dmytro Fedkowskyj, Queens’ representative on the Panel for Educational Policy, the central body authorized to approve New York City public schools’ budgets, policy and the capital plan.

“Sharing this space and managing it between two schools is going to create a challenge – two systems in one building,” he said of Newtown.

Not only will space become a challenge; so will funding. If enrollment drops, the schools’ financial support will drop along with it, since public funding is based on the number of students enrolled.

State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, a Democrat who represents the 16th District, says she does not support the planned co-location. “Putting two administrations where one is, is adding another layer of bureaucracy,” said Stavisky, a former teacher at Flushing High School who taught history in the 1960s. “You don’t improve by adding more principals.”

Over the past few years, Newtown and Flushing high schools have both received poor grades on their annual progress reports. Newtown received a “B” for the 2011-2012 school year, an improvement from the “C” received the year before. Despite Newtown’s efforts, it was designated as a Persistently Low Achieving (PLA) school during the 2010-’11 year, for having a graduation rate below 60 percent for three consecutive years. Flushing High School received a “C” for the 2009-’10 year and a “D” for the two years following, in addition to an “F” for student progress and student performance last year.

Last summer, both were identified by the New York State Education Department as among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

Both Newtown and Flushing High School have a large immigrant populations, and the DOE says its co-location program focuses squarely on helping such students. The planned schools offer international programs “designed to provide quality education for recently arrived immigrant students,” whose educational model will “offer rigorous academic programming” to students just learning English. Newtown will target Spanish-speaking immigrants, while Flushing will focus on those who speak Mandarin.

But there’s no guarantee new programs will help turn the existing schools around, Fedkowskyj said. “What these schools need are dedicated programs and that’s not happening,” he said. “If they wanted to implement these programs, they would have already done so.”

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