A Young Voice Talks to Schools’ Powerful

The Panel for Educational Policy meeting on Feb. 1 offered the spectator a little bit of everything, including humorous moments, like when a parent criticized the city’s take on education reform by singing her own lyrics to the tune of Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.” (“They know a lot about charter schools, and they think that merit pay is cool.”)

Two of the panel’s members nearly came to blows over whether to cancel the meeting because of the weather. Charter school supporters followed a script, students rapped and the schools chancellor, Cathleen P. Black, lost her composure when she mocked protesters at the end of the meeting after she had managed to keep her composure throughout the night.

Then there was this: A plea from a panel member to save her own high school.

The member, Lizabeth Ashliegh Cooper, is a junior at Paul Robeson High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and one of two student representatives on the panel, though the only one who attended the meeting. The positions give them access to the Department of Education’s top officials, seats on the stage alongside the panel’s 13 other members, license to voice their opinions during the meetings, but no right to vote.

Ms. Cooper lives in Brownsville, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, with a sister who works as a crossing guard and two nephews. She would not talk about her parents; “I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me,” she said by way of explanation. “This isn’t about me. It’s about my school.”

Ms. Cooper, 17, has been taking Advanced Placement classes since her freshman year. She is a member of the student government, where her most recent claim of success was to solve a chronic problem with her school’s public-announcement system.

“No one could hear the announcements,” she said. She petitioned for televisions in every classroom, where students could watch a newscast recorded by one of their own in a room on the first floor at Robeson. The TVs were installed on Monday, Ms. Cooper said.

The Panel for Educational Policy, which replaced the Board of Education after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took control of the schools, is widely regarded as a toothless body that votes according to Mr. Bloomberg’s wishes. The student representatives, its most powerless members, are picked by the Chancellor’s High School Student Advisory Council, which is made up of students representing high schools citywide, and serve from July 1 until June 30 of the next year.

Ms. Cooper said she had never missed a meeting and described her participation as “a job to me.”

“The public doesn’t see it, but behind the scenes, I get to talk to the deputy chancellors, I get to tell them about the problems in the schools,” she explained.

Before the meeting began on Feb. 1, she approached John White, a deputy chancellor for strategy, and told him “about what I feel is going to happen to freshmen and sophomores” at Robeson, she said, “that they’re going to be forgotten about and that no one really cares about whatever happens to them.” Schools that are closed typically die a slow death: current students are allowed to graduate but no new ones are admitted, and as a consequence, teachers begin to leave and programs are shut down as fewer and fewer students are around to fill them.

She voiced much of the same opinion during the meeting, drawing cheers from the audience. She knew her words would most likely have no effect on the panel members; “they come here already knowing how they’re going to vote,” she said, and indeed, the panel voted to close Robeson and nine other schools. On Thursday, they voted to close 12 more.

While she represents high school students, she is not exactly representative of the Robeson student experience. Only half of Robeson students graduate on time, compared with 63 percent citywide, and the schools’ students over all do poorly on Regents exams compared with similar high schools, according to the Department of Education. In recent years, the city has moved to close more than 90 low-performing schools, including a number of large high schools like Robeson, filling their buildings with charter schools and smaller schools that provide more intimate settings for students.

Still, it is hard to buy into the larger philosophy when you are a student, or a teacher, inside a school that is closing. Ms. Cooper said she recalled thinking that while the city planned to open a new technology-themed school in the same building as Robeson, sponsored by I.B.M., Robeson itself had one of the lowest computer-to-student ratios in the city.

She said many of its students struggled, yes, but she wondered what will become of the school’s last graduating class, in 2014, when a lot of the teachers will probably already have left the school, when what’s left of the extracurricular activities may all be gone.

“No one thinks about that, so I have to,” Ms. Cooper said. “We’re kids. We’re not just numbers.”

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