Rally to Save P.S. 122’s Gifted Program

By Bill Biniaris

The auditorium at P.S. 122 was filled with over 600 people on March 6, 2013. Parents, teachers, students and neighbors showed up on a cold night, whose forecast called for snow, in order to voice their frustration at the recent Department of Education announcement to phase-out the gifted program at the school. Among the panelists were Costa Constantinides, an alumnus of the coveted Academy for the Intellectually Gifted, Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer.

Parents, students, teachers and residents rallied at P.S. 122.

According to the Department, they’ve decided to enforce Chancellor’s regulation A-101 after never having done so in the past. In short, this regulation mandates that any zoned K-8 school allow all students that entered the school in kindergarten to remain in the building through the terminal grade. In order to apply this logic, all students that are admitted to P.S. 122 in September of 2013 will complete their tenure there upon graduating from the eighth grade.

At this point, one might be wondering what all the fuss is about. The problem is that P.S. 122 has never been a zoned K-8 school. The building, located at 21-21 Ditmars Blvd, Astoria, has historically been the home of an elementary school until about 1985. At that junction, a very small yet distinct District 30 gifted program, grades 6-8, was opened which eventually grew in size and scope. The specific goal of this new program was to serve the needs of District 30’s gifted middle school students. Such a program did not exist until this one was opened. Over time, “The Academy” expanded to include a strand of gifted classes within the existing elementary school. These changes never constituted the creation of a zoned middle-school at P.S. 122. The neighborhood’s zoned middle-school was and still is I.S. 141. At this point I must add something critical to the conversation. At many schools, similar constructs have been created and staffed by an additional school administration. The cost savings, coupled with stellar academic results, which no one refutes in relation to 122, would be more than enough to characterize the 122 community as successful and innovative.

One of the arguments against the DOE’s policy shift states that the rights of gifted children will be violated. Like all sub-groups within a school’s population, gifted children are entitled to a fair and appropriate education. The Academy for the Intellectually Gifted, which is housed within P.S. 122’s building, has done an exemplary job at educating these students for almost three decades. The results speak for themselves. Over 90% of the middle-school’s graduates attend Stuyvesant High School, Bronx H.S. of Science, Brooklyn Tech, Townsend Harris and Bard H.S. Early College. Almost all get into screened programs. It is also important to note that the vast majority of these students come from immigrant families that are either low or lower middle income households. Shouldn’t the Department of Education consider emulating rather than jeopardizing this program and school? Instead, middle school gifted classes will be slashed from 11 down to 3 according to the DOE’s proposed plan!

Other perspectives do exist however as well. In addition to the damage that The Academy will incur, the entire P.S. 122 school will also feel the impact. Currently, 1,364 students attend the school. This figure includes the students for both the elementary school, gifted and non-gifted, as well as the gifted middle school population. This total places P.S. 122 at 102% of its historical capacity. Simply stated, this means that the school is already maxed out. If the Department of Education’s policy is applied, as was announced, opponents claim that enrollment will rise to about 1,665 students which will result in the school operating at about 124% its historical capacity. Now one begins to understand what all the fuss is about. Besides the obvious concerns related to overcrowding and safety, vital rooms, such as the Library, Art, Computer, and Science rooms will be jeopardized.

Those who attended the emergency Parent-Teacher Association meeting on March 6, were hopeful that their concerns would be heard. Given the reputation of P.S. 122, and The Academy in particular, they felt that they had a fighting chance. Their hopes were continually dashed though, when the DOE’s representatives, Savita Iyengar and Rebecca Rawling, appeared to ignore the community’s specific questions. Instead, they chose to repeat their mantra about needing to comply with Chancellor’s regulation A-101 and the need to create equity. “They say the chancellor’s regulation is implemented because of equity,” said attorney Laura Barbieri, of counsel at Advocates for Justice. “This ‘equity’ word is problematic for us. “First of all what does it mean?” she asked. “Why is it applied now? Why applied to a school where the gifted and talented program is number one in the state?”

As a follow-up to the unsatisfactory response that evening, a core-group of District 30 parent-activists, organized a rally at the Department of Education’s Tweed Building that took place on March 14. The group held a joint press conference with Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. whose office was bombarded with calls and emails for almost two weeks prior. Consequently, he came to the support of the school which is located just a few blocks from his home. On the steps of Tweed, Vallone declared, “Our school system has enough problems, so it defies logic for the DOE to want to dismantle a highly successful program which is a model for the entire city.” “Bureaucrats are trying to blame the Chancellor’s regulation, as if it was one of the Ten Commandments, but those regulations are changed constantly. That excuse doesn’t hold water, and the Astoria community demands to know the real reason behind this.” Subsequently, representatives of the group entered the building and delivered petitions with approximately 2,200 signatures as well as hundreds of signed letters asking Chancellor Dennis Walcott to reconsider his stance on this matter.

Rally at the Department of Education’s Tweed Building

The school and the broader community continue to generate momentum. Several community based organizations have written letters to the Chancellor and voiced their support for P.S. 122 publicly. Most notably, the Federation of Hellenic Societies, Community Board 1, the Greek-American Homeowner’s Association, and the United Community Civic Association quickly responded to the school’s pleas. Many others followed suit.

At the most recent meeting of the Panel on Educational Policy on March 20th, Chancellor Dennis Walcott was confronted by those advocating on behalf of P.S. 122 and the Community School District 30 schools in general. He was asked to visit the school and speak to a broad group of stakeholders regarding this situation. He agreed to do so and a meeting is currently being arranged. It appears that the Chancellor has gotten the message from all of the aforementioned organizations and individuals. The question now is what will he do upon arriving at the school? According to the DOE’s spokesman Devan Puglia, “Chancellor Walcott and his team are very responsive and listen closely to feedback from families. We look forward to meeting with this community once again and articulating our rationale for this plan: equity and fairness for all students.” Hopefully the Chancellor will be inclined to do more listening than explaining.

If you’d like to help Save The Academy at P.S. 122 you can:
Sign the online petition at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/save-the-academy-at-ps-122/
Call/Write your local representatives to tell them that you support the #1 rated middle school in NYC
Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. @ (718) 274-4500
Costas Constantinides @ Costa4Astoria@gmail.com
NYS Assemblywoman Simotas @ (718) 545-3889
NYS Senator Michael Gianaris @ (718) 728-0960
Call/Write the Department of Education
Chancellor Dennis Walcott @ (212) 374-0200
Deputy Chancellor Mark Sternberg @ (212) 374-0225
Deputy Chief Executive for Admissions Sandy Ferguson @ (212) 374-7636