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Students turn to activism to save school

Story and photos by Gregg McQueen

“They want to make sure that you can make it to college,” said Jaden Stevens.

“They want to make sure that you can make it to
college,” said Jaden Stevens.

“I didn’t want the school to go away.”

Christopher Peña, an eleventh grader at the High School for Health Careers and Sciences, was one of many voices who resisted the decision by the Department of Education (DOE) to shut down the school at the George Washington Educational Campus.

Last December, the 400 students learned their school, along with 13 other public schools deemed as struggling, was targeted for closure by the DOE.

And though the curriculum is designed to prepare them for careers in healthcare, science and engineering, the students were soon immersed in lessons on advocacy, civics – and even public speaking.

News of the closure stirred wide opposition, as advocates stressed that closing the school would negatively impact local students of color, which make up 95 percent of the enrollment.

Among those leading the outcry were elected officials, local education leaders, and alumni.

“If we close the school, right in the middle of perhaps the biggest oasis of health sciences research, technology and academic activity, we’re sending a horrible message to the rest of the nation,” argued Congressman Adriano Espaillat at a February 22 rally at City Hall.

But some of the most visible opponents were those who stood to be immediately impacted – currently enrolled students such as Peña, who held protests, attended public hearings and worked actively to bring attention to the issue.

The High School for Health Careers and Sciences.

The High School for Health Careers and Sciences.

“I have really good friends [here],” said Peña, whose activism stemmed from a response as spontaneous as it was personal. “I have a really good relationship with all my teachers.”

“The staff here, they care about what your needs are and what you’re going through. They want to make sure that you can make it to college,” echoed his classmate Jaden Stevens.

Stevens is planning a career in the forensic sciences, and said it is a rarity for a Northern Manhattan school to offer a curriculum tailored to science-hungry young minds.

“It was nerve-wracking,” said Jun Jae of his turn at public speaking.

“It was nerve-wracking,” said Jun Jae of his turn
at public speaking.

“I’ve learned a lot here,” he said. “There aren’t many other schools around here like this.”

At the February 28 public meeting, the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), the final voice on the matter, voted to close 10 public schools – but not the High School for Health Careers and Sciences. The following day, the DOE announced that the school had been removed from the list of potential closures.

A reprieve had been won.

Peter Tinguely is the school’s Community School Director, as affiliated with the non-profit Catholic Charities which provides on-campus programming and support services.

“In advocating for the viability of our school, our most valuable resource was the students’ voices. They worked together; they organized; they fought,” said Tinguely. “They saw for themselves how getting involved can make a real difference. This is a win for the community – but especially for them. We could not be prouder of our students.”

That the DOE specifically cited community response as the reason for the change – and added it would provide additional resources to help bolster the school’s performance – heightened the elation of victory.

Students had organized numerous rallies.

Students had organized numerous rallies.

“After receiving extensive community feedback and listening to discussions at last night’s PEP meeting, we re-evaluated the proposal to close the High School for Health Careers and Sciences and have decided to withdraw it,” said DOE spokesperson Michael Aciman at the time. “The school will remain in the Renewal program for an additional year and we will work closely with [District 6] Superintendent Ramírez’s office to provide the community with additional resources including hands-on support from their Director of School Renewal, instructional coaching and targeted graduation support, to ensure the school makes the necessary progress.”

Students said that while news of the potential closure originally hit hard, it also served to galvanize and unite them in a common cause.

“It was terrible,” recalled Jun Jae, an eleventh grader, upon first hearing that his school was slated to close. “People felt really bad. But it brought students closer together.”

Mesach Brown, a freshman at the school, said he was stunned that the school could shutter just a few months after he arrived.

Ayisha Minaya spoke her piece at a City Hall rally on February 22nd.

Ayisha Minaya spoke her piece
at a City Hall rally on February
22nd.

Both of his brothers graduated from the school and he sought to follow in their footsteps, he said.
“You see how easy it is to get a school shut down, if it’s not performing,” Brown said.

Stevens said he noticed an uptick in engagement from his classmates after the DOE’s original announcement, in which it had cited poor low graduation rates and test scores, as well as declining enrollment, as motivations for closure.

While some had questioned the metrics used, Stevens said he wasn’t surprised.

“I feel like students around here were lacking in motivation. Some people weren’t giving it their all [before],” he stated. “People weren’t graduating or coming to class, so I’m not surprised the city was looking at closing it.”

But once the school’s future was in danger, said Stevens, students seemed to respond.

“After we heard that, people started coming to school, supporting their community, and doing more for their community than what they had done,” Stevens said. “And through that, I think they’ve come to love the school more, and appreciate what they had more as a result.”

While the effort to save the school featured some high-profile backers like Espaillat, State Senator Marisol Alcántara, Borough President Gale Brewer, and Councilmember Ydanis Rodríguez, it also thrust students directly into the spotlight, as they spoke publicly at rallies and press conferences, as well as at the PEP meeting where the fate of all schools was being decided.

“It was nerve-wracking,” Jun Jae said. “I had to type up a speech before I went up to the mic.”

Peña recalled the intense atmosphere of the PEP meeting, which drew hundreds of people.

“It was so crowded. There were students from all over the city speaking out,” Peña said.

“We saw that schools might be different, but we saw how people across the city are in the same situation, fighting to save a school they love and [trying to] get a better education,” he added.

Students said they were proud of the role they played in advocating for the school, and potentially swaying the DOE.

“When we found out the school wasn’t closing, we were thrilled,” said Stevens. “It was invigorating.”

And their taste for advocacy does not appear to have lessened just yet.

“We saw how people across the city are in the same situation,” said Christopher Peña.

“We saw how people across the city are in the
same situation,” said Christopher Peña.

Peña said that, in seeking specific added resources as the DOE had promised, he would look for greater on-campus assistance with Regents exams, while Brown and Stevens said they hoped the city would allocate funding so the school could have more science equipment.

“Right now, we have a programming class for robotics, but we only have one robot for the entire class to use,” Stevens said.

Brown stressed that he’d also like to see more afterschool programs offered at the school.

 

“We need more to do after school, maybe some type of internship program with local medical centers,” said Brown, who remarked that there is a lesson for students whose schools are struggling.

“You should take school seriously,” he said. “You have a very big responsibility to support your school because there is a lot riding on it.”

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