New York City’s Oldest Public School Fears Becoming History
Tucked between a few commercial buildings, and across the street from Flushing’s YMCA and a Chinese food restaurant is Flushing High School. The school is seemingly out of place: its Neo-Gothic style – with gargoyles and all – and its grassy, tree-lined campus makes a stark contrast between the school and its urban neighbors.
Flushing High School was founded in 1875, making it New York City’s oldest public school. The building itself however, came later. It was constructed from 1912 to 1915, and was designed by C. B. J. Snyder, a renowned urban school architect who was Superintendent of School Buildings for the New York Board of Education. The school was declared a New York City landmark in 1991, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings in 1992.
The school’s internal politics, however, have earned it a fair share of limelight in the last year: Flushing High School was slated to close in April 2012 because of its status as a “turnaround,” or rather, failing school. In June this was overturned after the resolve of the United Federation of Teachers’ lawsuit against the Department of Education. Only two months after, Carl Hudson, Jr., the school’s principal was arrested on drug charges.
On the surface, Flushing High School is just another underdeveloped public school with poor standardized test scores and low attendance rates. And within the last three years it has gone from scoring the 18 percentile – meaning that the school’s report card grade is greater than or equal to 18 percent of other high schools – to the 7 percentile.
Despite the numbers, Flushing High School does not fit the description for the stereotypical “failing” school. It is located in one of the most thriving neighborhoods in Queens, and is in one of the safest precincts. Students are not placing any blame on teachers, but rather, on each other. The problems they face may be representative of a larger, systematic issue.
Inside the Castle’s Walls
The most obvious internal change within Flushing High School was the recent creation of smaller programs or academies to help direct more attention on individual students.
Michael Alberston, a music teacher who has taught at Flushing for nine years, told School Stories, “We have too many people in the building. Students are not getting the attention they deserve.” His class sizes reach the maximum 34 students, and sometimes even exceed that number.
Approximately 3000 students attend Flushing High School, of whom 52 percent are Hispanic/Latino, 25 percent are Black/African American, 19 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander and 4 percent are white.
While those statistics have remained relatively the same within the last three years – when the school, by DOE standards, was significantly better – other demographic factors have changed. In 2008-2009. 74 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, compared to the 78 percent in 2010-2011. Student stability – essentially retention rate – has also decreased, from 98 percent to 93 percent respectively.
James Manning, now a senior at Flushing, told the Queens Courier that students were “[choosing] not to learn,” with a large number of students cut class everyday and doing drugs in the hallway.
“No matter who you put in front of that classroom, they are still the same kids,” said Manning.
Others shared the same sentiment. Ziyi Yu, a student at Flushing, arrived to the United States from China a few years ago. He explained that many students skip class, and bully Asian students.
His mother, Jing-yan Zhang, told School Stories that when she found out her son was assigned to Flushing High School, she was worried for his future.
“Many Chinese families moved to Bayside or other areas so their children don’t have to go to this school,” she said. She and her husband cannot afford to move however: both work in Flushing, speak little English, and rent is higher in those neighborhoods.
Jenny Chen, who teaches in the Chinese bi-lingual program, explained to School Stories that the demographics of the school have changed within the last few years.
“Our school receives federal funding so we don’t get to choose what students we have,” she said. “If they keep closing down schools, like Jamaica High School, where do those low-performing students go? They come here.”
The DOE’s “Solution”
Since coming into office in 2002, Mayor Bloomberg has closed over 140 “failing” public schools, forcing students from these closed schools to attend elsewhere. Since New York City public schools use “zones,” students from certain areas are given preference to attend.
When a school is slated to close the first step the DOE looks to accomplish is “restaffing.” This is essentially replacing as many of the school’s teachers as the DOE sees fit. In doing so, the new school becomes eligible for federal grants – and the more teachers replaced, the more money is allotted. Typically, at least half of the teachers are replaced.
When Flushing was first put on the list of the city’s 24 failing schools set to close, over 3,000 teachers lost their job assignments and were told to reapply if interested. The United Federation of Teachers and Council of School Supervisors and Administrators filed a lawsuit against the DOE, claiming that this was a violation of their contract.
The Teachers Union won, and Flushing High School remained open. However, it was placed on the list of “priority” schools, meaning that along with the other priority schools, administrators must draft improvement plans in order to continue to receive federal funding.
In September, AT&T donated 300,000 dollars to the Sports and Arts in Schools Foundation to help Flushing High School with tutors and college advisors. As a priority school, the federal government does not set aside funds for tutoring.
And unless drastic improvements are made within the next two years, the possibility of closure remains a very real possibility for Flushing High School.
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