2007-12-14 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

The Demise Of A Community Institution Is Always Sad
Commentary By Howard Schwach

On November 10, 1947, 60 years ago, Far Rockaway High School celebrated its 50th, or golden anniversary. The gala anniversary dinner-dance was held at the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan.

The dinner that night included fruit cocktail, cream of mushroom soup, roast turkey, cranberries and giblet gravy, string beans, mixed green salad, ice cream and cake, as well as coffee.

Among the hundreds who attended were my mother and father, Roz and Stanley Schwach. My father was FRHS, class of 1929. He was one of the students who walked from the temporary school at PS 42 in Arverne to the

new building" on Bay 25 Street the first day it opened in 1929. My mother was FRHS, class of 1934. I was FRHS, class of 1957. My wife, Susan, was FRHS, class of 1960. My son, Rob, was FRHS, class of 1983.

That is why you might see a teardrop on this paper. Far Rockaway High School is being phased out by the Department of Education. Coming soon, a new school called The Far Rockaway Educational Campus. No more Far Rockaway High School.

In the program given out on that night long ago in Manhattan was a section called "Far Rockaway Looks Ahead."

The final paragraph of that section read, "Far Rockaway High School is fortunate in that it holds the respect and affection of its alumni and the parents of its students. It is not enough for a school to keep abreast of the times. Far Rockaway must look ahead."

Now, we are all alumni without an alma mater.

There is a long list of FRHS graduates who should be remembered.

Baruch Samuel Blumberg won the 1976 Nobel Prize in medicine.

Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1976. He was involved with the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bombs and ended World War II.

Burton Richter won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics.

There are not many high schools that can claim three men who won Nobel Prizes in the sciences. Now, there is one less.

Then, there were the countless sports stars who left Far Rockaway for stardom on the collegiate level, and even a few who made the pros. Off the top of my head, I can think of Nancy Lieberman, the Bayswater kid who came off the playgrounds of Bayswater to become the first legitimate female basketball star, and John Warren, who played for the New York Knicks and other teams before becoming a major player in the financial world.

Of course, there's Joyce Brothers and Carl Icahn, Jonas Salk and Richard Cohen (the Washington Post columnist). The list could go on and on.

"What high school did you go to?"

"Oh, it no longer exists. They scrapped it in 2008."

Sad!

Ten years ago, in October of 1997, there was a 100th anniversary weekend that included a Friday night dinner, a Saturday morning breakfast at the Beach Club on Beach 116 Street, followed by a motorcade to the school for the day's football game. There were more than 100 cars in the procession. That night, there was a dinner at a Nassau County hotel that was so crowded that it was impossible to find anybody you were looking for. There were literally thousands of people at the events, all of them coming back to Rockaway to remember their high school years.

That is what the school means to its graduates.

Perhaps they should do what the government did with my ship, the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42). When they scrapped it in the early 1970's at the Philadelphia Shipyard, they invited all of those who had served on the ship to come and take a piece of the ship away.

They could tear down the building, wipe out all memory of the school and give individual bricks to those who could prove they graduated from the school.

There are those, of course, who say that the school deserves to be closed down. That it was no longer serving an educational purpose.

One person who I interviewed for the front-page story last week, an educator who asked not to be identified for obvious reasons, put it most succinctly.

"They haven't graduated anybody but felons for years," he said.

Perhaps he's right and that's sad.

The fault lies in lots of directions. When the Board of Education set its policy of every high school as a magnet school, it mostly destroyed the zoned schools such as Far Rockaway. Everybody who could get out, did so, leaving at the school only those who could not be accepted anywhere else.

When I attended Far Rockaway High School, there were three sessions. Freshman went to school from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. There were more than 2,500 students.

Today, there are 865 students in the building.

There are also two other schools in the Far Rockaway High School building on Bay 25 Street, each with its own principal, its own administrators, and its own students.

According to a present staff member, those two schools, Frederick Douglass Academy VI, a high school with 268 students and Knowledge And Power Preparatory Academy (KAPPA VI) with 159 students, get all of the gold mine while the old Far Rockaway High School gets the shaft.

"We got no support from the DOE," the staffer said. "Everything went to the mayor's pet projects in other parts of the building."

The school got D on its recent progress report card.

The report card showed that 30 percent of the students graduated in a five-year period. Only 17 percent got a Regent's Diploma on graduation. Only 34 percent of the students met standards on standardized tests. When asked in a survey, only 23 percent of the students, teachers and parents who responded believed that there was a culture of safety and respect in the building.

In other words, the school is probably not meeting its mandate of educating students.

That fault, however, lies with the students and their parents, not with the school, the teachers or the administrators.

Two years ago, in an attempt to turn the school around, the DOE reorganized it, firing more than 75 percent of its staff and hiring all new teachers.

It made no difference.

Neither will closing it down and making it into five or six smaller schools. They will be dealing with largely the same kids. It's the kids that make the school what it is, not the staff.

Want proof? Take the staff and administration from a high school that got an A on its report card and put them in Far Rockaway High School. Give them a few years, if they last that long.

They will make no difference.

It's the kids, stupid. And their parents.

It is long past time that the DOE should understand that and set some standards and accountability for those two groups rather than closing schools and firing their staff.

That would make a real difference. In fact, in this city, it is the only thing that will make a difference.

I have long held the belief that 50 percent of the city's public school students get the best education in the world. They come from homes that value education and therefore, they learn. There is another 20 percent that might be turned on to education by a good teacher or a good administrator.

The other 30 percent will never learn, no matter what the DOE does, because they come from a background that does not value education but denigrates it at every turn.

The liberal ideal that "All Children Can Learn," is not close to being true. When our school officials begin to realize that, then we can get on the real road to a better educational system.

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I Graduated from FRHS in 1967 and the 100th anniversary celebration was our class' 30th reunion.
Although I no longer live in NYC, I visit often and have been in the school during the last 10 years.
How sad.
It should also be noted that other countries, whose students score higher than US students on Math and Science tests show NO DIFFERENCE in success as it relates to income.
We are doing something very wrong in this country.


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