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Schools fight back: Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Manhattan

‘This is not a lost school’

Community leaders, elected officials, school staff, students and parents came ouMiller PhotographyCommunity leaders, elected officials, school staff, students and parents came out in force for a Jan. 26 press conference and DOE hearing about Wadleigh’s future. A Harlem institution with 111 years behind it, Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts may have narrowly escaped being closed outright by the Department of Education this year, but the school must now battle to save its middle grades from the DOE’s ax — and battling it is.

Strongly supported by the surrounding community — everybody knows somebody who went to Wadleigh, explained parent coordinator and former teacher Delores Roberts — the school is waging an aggressive campaign to stop the DOE from shuttering its 6th, 7th and 8th grades.

Twice now, parents, teachers and parishioners from the First Corinthian Baptist Church, where many Wadleigh families attend services, have joined forces to canvass the community, leafletting, putting up posters and reaching out to the school’s many alumni. Students have done their part too, holding a Jan. 19 “Save Wadleigh Middle School” arts performance — with visual art, spoken word, music and singing — to showcase their many talents. Even the local Papa John’s Pizza has gotten in on the action, sending out “Save Wadleigh” leaflets with every order.

Hundreds of parents, teachers, students and supportive residents from the surrounding community — as well as a who’s who of Harlem and citywide elected officials — also came out to a Jan. 26 press conference and contentious hearing at the school where they confronted the DOE’s chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, causing him to admit by the end of the evening that he had “heard loud and clear” the strong opposition to the DOE’s plan.

There’s good reason for the love felt for Wadleigh in the community. The school has rooted itself in the neighborhood, serving as the locus for poetry readings, art exhibits, an impressive monthly speaker series and other cultural activities.

Wadleigh students participating in the school’s writing workshops have published three volumes of poetry; others have passed through its Mentoring in Medicine program to pursue medical careers of their own.

“This is not a lost school. This is a school full of talent and knowledge,” said 11th-grader Jamal Augustin. “Closing this school really hurts this community.”

The DOE claims that it wants to shutter Wadleigh’s middle school because it is failing its students, citing that only 16 percent of Wadleigh middle school students scored proficient on the state’s English exam last year, and the school received a D on its most recent School Progress Report. But what the DOE doesn’t tell you, educators at the school are quick to point out, is that Wadleigh serves one of the neediest student populations in the entire city.

Almost 87 percent of students at the Wadleigh middle school live in poverty — compared to a district average of 61 percent. And the secondary school’s proportion of self-contained students has grown from 5 percent of the student body in 2005-06 to 11 percent in 2010-11 — even as the district’s self-contained student population declined over the same period.

The Wadleigh school community finds it hard to understand the DOE’s arbitrary thinking. Nine other middle schools received the same or worse progress report grades last year — and, with only one exception, they all work with less-challenging student populations. But none of them are closing. Why?

Parent coordinator Roberts, who has served at the school in one capacity or another since 1979, says she knows the answer.

“This is more about the property than it is about the success or failure of the school,” she said, alluding to the impending co-location of a new Harlem Success Academy middle school in the building in September. “They’re talking about Harlem Success. What about the success already made by Wadleigh students?”


Editors' postscript: The DOE on Feb. 8, the eve of the vote by the city's Panel for Educational Policy on the school closures, gave a reprieve to Knowledge And Power Preparatory Academy VII, a Brooklyn middle school, and the middle school in Wadleigh. In a statement explaining the last-minute decision, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said, “While these two schools continue to struggle, what we learned is that they are also poised to quickly improve."

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