Jamaica High: Teaching Against the Odds

29 04 2010

On this particular day, the school’s hallways have an eerie silence. The bell rings but no classroom doors fly open to pour out the jostling students. It is parent-teacher conference time and students have joyfully taken their granted half-day as parents take their place in the corridors.

But something else is here. There are secrets in the air.

Heels clank against the marble floor, echo into the distance and ricochet off the walls. The walls–they know something. Why, they can barely contain their contents.

All of a sudden, the hallway becomes full–as the softball team of 1955 poses proudly on the bleachers and students of 1936 crouch over their wooden desks for a social studies test. Principal Charles H. Vusburg sits in the front of the vast auditorium to watch singers on skates for the faculty production in 1933. These hallways–they’re alive!

But the excitement fades and the hallways seem still as reality intrudes. All of these memories of Jamaica High School are likely to end as administrators are ordered to close the school’s doors for good, and in turn, lay its rich history to rest.  This gloomy destiny permeates through the building, reaching a small meeting room tucked away on a corner of the second floor where a teacher sits, remembers and mourns.

“I’ve been at Jamaica for 26 years, most of my life as a teacher,” said Kathy Kalansky, a former social studies teacher who now heads a special program for advanced students called Gateway. “I came because it was a lovely school with a lively spirit and lots of excitement.”

With tears, she added, “This whole school has become my life, my family-I don’t know what I will do.”

The closing is off, at least for now, because of a state Court decision that the city has committed “significant violations” of the mayoral control law. The law requires the Department of Education to give detailed “educational-impact statements” describing the effect of each closing on students and surrounding schools.

The lawsuit was filed by the United Federation of Teachers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the court’s decision will likely allow the 19 city schools to remain open for at least another year. The city has already moved to appeal.

Recently honored as a New York City historical landmark after being open for more than 100 years,  Jamaica High School and its teachers were not alone facing their plight.

Since 2002, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed to close 91 schools. Some of the closings have already taken place. Jamaica High was one of 19 schools that were in the last round of proposed closings. In an attempt to restructure the school system, the city closes New York City high schools that have performed poorly on measures such as graduation rates and incidence of violence. Many, like Jamaica High, are being replaced with smaller charter or public schools within the same building.

Though it was named the most outstanding secondary school in the nation by the federal Department of Education in 1985, by 2007, Jamaica had landed on the city’s “impact list” of violent schools and is still fighting the label “persistently dangerous.” Schools are labeled persistently dangerous if they have six serious incidents per 100 students for two years in a row.

Since the school was removed from the list in 2008, the graduation rate has jumped 10 percent, but that has not been enough to save Jamaica. Parents already received letters from NYC Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein that the school was labeled violent. Students were given the option of transferring out and more than 800 parents took that option. With that, funding was cut and a downward spiral ensued.

“I always have to think of creative ways to teach my students because we have no funding to get materials or enter competitions,” said Chrissy Dibinis, a chemistry teacher of 12 years who is also a Jamaica alum, class of ’88. She speaks proudly of her students’ creativity. They incorporated chemistry into a reality show and presented it to the class. One presentation:  “Element Idol,” “American Idol” with a twist.

In January 2010, the Department of Education Panel for Educational Policy voted on the proposed three-year phase-out of the school. No incoming freshmen would be accepted and the remaining classes would graduate till the last one left in June 2013.

“When I first came here, there were, like, 2,500 people in the school, and by the next semester, it dropped down to, like, 1,500 people,” said alumni Reaz Khan, who graduated from Jamaica in 2009. “The board sent letters to my house saying it was dangerous, so I was afraid to come back for my last year. But I did, and it was fine.”

Many teachers were infuriated by the proposed closing and the effect it would surely have on their students.

“The whole thing is disgraceful,” said Michael Pallisco, a 13-year social studies teacher, coordinator of student activities and coach for the school’s softball team. “This place is beautiful and historic. Now, it’s like they put a big ‘loser’ stamp on the building.”

“There’s a lot of good teachers and they’re not gonna be our teachers anymore,” said sophomore Kayla Providence. “And because the school is being closed, the students don’t care as much about their work. Who’s gonna be there for them now?”

Many teachers say quietly that the proposed closing was not based on academic deterioration but rather is the result of a targeted attack. They murmur that the closings may be associated with the school’s minority and high-need student majority. This belief propelled the lawsuit that now holds the closings in limbo and is forcing the city to make its case all over again with substantial community involvement.

“We have special-education kids, kids that speak Bangladeshi–that don’t speak a lick of English– and we take them and we attempt to educate them,” said Dena Gordon, a Jamaica teacher for the past decade. “By creating these smaller charter schools that don’t have diversity in all the classrooms, they’re creating segregation in the system.”

In fact, faculty are already beginning to experience what they call “academic apartheid”  as the school now shares its building with a hallway-long school, Queens Collegiate. QC, which opened in September 2008 and is funded by the College Board, raises concerns of separate and unequal learning among teachers and faculty. Three doors separate the two schools. To many, the evidence is clear. Electronic boards are in every room of QC—in Jamaica High: only two.

“It’s like a tale of two cities,” said Kalansky, whose students affectionately call her “Momma K.” “I counted it. Thirteen steps, and it’s like you’re in another place.

Teachers and faculty are also incensed that Chancellor Klein has stated that their union is fighting to keep schools open merely to keep their jobs. To this, the Department of Education deputy press secretary, Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld said, “No comment.”

But Jamaica is keeping up the fight. The teachers have already had several rallies and gathered students to distribute fliers and hang up posters. One student, Trevon Phillips, formed a Facebook group called Save Jamaica High School. The group now has 3,463 members, many boasting their graduation year: “Robert Cohen: Class of ’63!”

But more than anything, the school community is mourning the loss of Jamaica’s rich history and the memories it holds for each individual who has walked through its hallways.

“What are we losing?” asked 23-year social studies teacher James Eterno, the leader of Jamaica’s chapter of the teacher union. “We’re losing 118 years worth of history. It’s all being thrown down the drain and being replaced with four schools that have no history. There is a link between alumni, students, teachers that will be severed.”

The teachers’ fates: The newest hired are let go first as the school enrollment plummets, but older teachers will likely be passed up for younger, cheaper teachers if the school splits into four seperate schools.

“I’m scared,” said Jeanette Taveras, a Jamaica Spanish teacher for 23 years. “This is where I started.”

On a sunny March day, teachers gathered in lunchrooms and reminisce. In companionable camaraderie, they shared tuna fish sandwiches, Tabasco sauce and doubts.

Ms. Gordon: “I know we’ve made a difference. I’ve gotten letters from people who told me they graduated. They hug me and say, “Miss, do you remember the time I passed the global regents? I went to Cornell.”

Another one spoke of the how the possible closing will affect their relationships with each other.

“This is the last supper.  At least half of us will be scattered in the five corners of the city.”

Long-time teacher Wilford Caban commented: “It’s the consistency.  We give them the most structure they have in their day. They have a sense of ownership in the building. They feel safe.”

“I tell them, If you don’t do your work, I’ll see you in summer school,” he continued. “They say, ‘Good.’”

Senior Ruby Celis, 18, attests to her teachers’ dedication.

“As a freshman, I messed up a lot—cutting classes, not doing any of my work,” she said. “But as the teachers helped me, I had role models and began to do my work. Now, as a senior, I dropped my lunch period just to take a class I need. I feel lucky cause my friends I grew up with dropped out of school.”

Stories like Ruby’s are what make Principal Walter Acham smile. Principal for the last two and a half years, he has watched the students grow into mature adults.

“All the students need are expectations—what they are expected to do,” he said. “Now, the kids have come a long way, and they’re not overwhelmed with a whole bunch of rules. I still haven’t come to terms with the proposed closing.”

Despite the numbers, there is a place for schools with rich history and diversity.

“Now, nothing’s wrong with making things more efficient,” said Ms. Kalansky. “But some things in life are not measurable.”




6 responses

1 05 2010
Remainders: D.C. contract on hold, charter cap back in the news | GothamSchools

[…] and students at Jamaica High School reflect on the school’s closure, which is now on […]

3 05 2010
Arthur Goldstein

I’m a little surprised you say “despite the numbers” without pointing out that the numbers used to close Jamaica are wholly inaccurate.


It’s important to note that Jamaica was closed on false pretenses, and that Tweed, which had the corrected numbers, chose not only to ignore them, but also to broadcast their false statistics all over the city.

3 05 2010

I enjoyed this piece. We are not giving up the fight for our school. Join us as Jamaica High School is well worth saving and continuing.

3 05 2010
Dennis Jensen

People are beginning to understand that charter schools aren’t really any better than the proven system. We need to fix the problems, not destroy what worked. Don’t blame teachers for the country’s social problems.

3 05 2010
Wilfred Caban

Jamaica High School is a great neigbhorhood school with dedicaded teachers and staff. The school should be allowed to continue in its 118 year history.Kids are not products with one-size-fits- all educations.

1 05 2014
Norman Weber

In 1959 when I graduated, there was a list posted in the hall of the scholarships won by the students. It was quite lengthy, and not what would be expected ofa failing school.Perhaps the failures belong to a group of politicians,and administrators, who have systematically destroyed the public school system for the last fifty years.

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