In February, the Bloomberg administration placed Jamaica on a list of 22 failing schools it planned to close. The mayor and his schools chancellors have sent letters encouraging students to enroll elsewhere, and the shrinking of the student body has led to a decline in financing, squeezing the juice out of Jamaica High.
There was no money for lab lessons in advanced biology, which upset Doreen Mohammed and Tonmoy Kabiraj, who hope to be doctors. Courtney Perkins’s advanced math class did not have graphing calculators until eight months into the school year. The last music teacher was sent to another school, which really frustrated Mills Duodu, who plays violin, trumpet, drums and piano.
City officials have vigorously fought a lawsuit brought by the teachers’ union seeking to save the 22 schools, 15 of them high schools. In May, the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, called the union’s position “unacceptable” and vowed to “defend the honor of our students.”
This surprised Afsan Quayyum and Doreen, who graduated from Jamaica High, in Queens, last week. They did not realize their honor needed defending. Afsan, the valedictorian, plans to start an engineering program this fall that will give him a bachelor’s degree from Queens College in three years, and another from Columbia University after two more. Doreen, the salutatorian, has a full scholarship to Columbia.
Their classmate Gerard Henry is struck by all the people he meets who have never stepped inside Jamaica High yet are sure it is a living hell. “If I say, ‘My name is Gerard Henry and I just graduated Jamaica High School,’ they say, ‘Oh my God, you’re one of them?’ If I say, ‘My name is Gerard Henry and I’m going to Columbia next fall,’ they say, ‘Oh my God, you’re one of them?’ ”
It is puzzling how a school can be labeled failing and yet produce Afsan, Doreen and Gerard, not to mention Mills (who is heading to Denison University in Ohio), Kevin Gonzalez (Stony Brook University), Courtney (Howard University), Nujhat Choudhury (University of Alberta) and two top math students who are best friends: Muhammad Ahmad (Clarkson University) and Mohammad Khan (City University’s Grove School of Engineering), known throughout the school as “the Mohammads squared.”
Of course, it is possible that such seniors are the exceptions. As James S. Liebman, the Columbia law professor who developed the city report card, wrote in an e-mail: “Good high schools aren’t satisfied when just a few kids get into strong colleges. They aim for all kids to do so.” Education Department officials point out that the graduation rate at Jamaica has stayed at about 50 percent for years.
But it is also possible that the deck has been stacked against Jamaica High, that the 15 “worst” high schools have been packed with the students with the worst problems. According to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office, these schools have more poor children (63 percent versus 52 percent citywide), more homeless students (6 percent versus 4 percent), more special-education students (18 versus 12). For 24 percent of Jamaica High students, English is a foreign language, compared with 11 percent citywide.
The “worst” high schools are sent the eighth graders who are the furthest behind: their average proficiency score on state tests is 2.6 out of 4, compared with 2.9 citywide, and more of these students (9 percent versus 4 percent) are over age, suggesting they have had to repeat grades.
It is no big mystery to Doreen why Stuyvesant High gets A’s on the city progress reports while Jamaica gets D’s: “Only the smartest kids are accepted,” she said.
Jamaica High’s enrollment has fallen to about 1,000, a quarter of what it was in the mid-1970s. No new pupils will be accepted this fall. In three years, when the last of its current students graduate, the school will close. Four new small schools will take over its storied building.
Each administration wants to be remembered for pioneering something or other, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg long ago chose small schools and charters.