Queen’s lawmakers joined parents, teachers, alumni and students outside the United Nations International School (UNIS) in Jamaica for a rally on Friday, December 10. calling on UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to suspend the decision to close the school.
The school, located at 173-53 Croydon Rd., is facing closure after the UNIS Board of Trustees notified the community last month of its decision to permanently close the campus in June 2022, citing lost enrollment and a $2 million shortfall.
The drastic decision was made without any formal conclusion, process, due diligence or transparency with the families, children, teachers, staff and administrators who are most affected, according to SAVE UNIS Queens, a coalition that was formed to keep the school open that has been in Queens for nearly 75 years.
“Everyone knows this is a gem of a school — it’s in the most ethnically diverse borough in the country. We have a gem of excellence here and we are on the verge of losing it,” said Udai Tambar, a parent and alumnus. “Our request has been simple throughout this process: suspend this closure and consult with the community, to find common solutions that co-create a fiscally responsible and sustainable way forward.”
As healthcare worker and parent, Jeremy Beitler says he felt a deep sense of betrayal when the school’s board voted to close UNIS Queens amid a life-altering pandemic families and their children.
“When two council members came to present their decision to our community, one of them revealed that she had never set foot on this campus before. She said it was her decision and she didn’t need to visit a school or her community to make an informed decision,” Beitler said. “So let’s clarify what this means – a board member of the United Nations school thought it was okay to vote to disband this community, knowing nothing about it except a few budget lines on a sheet excel.”
The United Nations International School has 1,600 students on two campuses: 130 in Queens (K-8) and 1,470 in Manhattan (K-12). Its student body is the most diverse in the world, representing 109 countries and speaking 91 languages.
According to UNIS Queens, the campus was founded in 1947 as a small preschool by UN parents who wanted to ensure their children could retain their cultural identities and an education that would allow them to return to any national education system. Gradually more grades were added and admissions were opened to non-UN students who could take the curriculum.
Alex, 13, has been attending UNIS Queens since kindergarten and said the school has become a big part of her childhood and life, after meeting loyal friends and smart, caring teachers.
“During COVID, when I was an online student, they not only spent more time making sure I had the right education of any other kid, they made sure that every student who got through those gates was appreciated and came out educated,” Alex mentioned. “I learned three languages (English, Spanish and French) and so will every student standing here on the sidewalk. Our teachers speak fluently, from France and Spain. They came to UNIS Queens for a reason and I think they should stay.
Another student, Anna, shared her thoughts on the council’s decision to close the school.
“It’s not because we don’t have enough money, we have so much money and I don’t know why the board thinks they can close the school,” Anna said. “For about five years they hid this and kept it a secret that few children were enrolled. They could have told the parents and I have many friends who could have come to this school.
In their fight to keep campus open, parents, students, faculty, alumni and community members have launched an online website petition which received 2,095 signatures.
Last month, the group held a candlelight rally outside the school, and the UNIS Parents’ Association sent a letter to Guterres regarding their concerns.
The school community is also receiving support from elected officials in Queens who are on the front lines of the issue, as a total of 20 lawmakers sent a joint letter to Guterres. Lawmakers have expressed concern about the impact of the school closure on students represented in their constituencies, as current plans would move children to the WE campus in Manhattan, extending the children’s commute by more than one hour in each direction.
Representatives cited studies that declared a mental health emergency for children as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and noted that the prolonged displacement and uprooting of children from their home environments would exacerbate many of these problems. .
“We want them to know that Manhattan is a thing of the past. We want our children in Queens not to have to travel outside of their community or borough to get a quality education,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said at the rally. “Anything that doesn’t properly engage students or parents and educators is nothing more than a flawed system.”
Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi said the school’s children, parents and teachers have gone above and beyond in the past 20 months to navigate life and school in the pandemic.
“They don’t need more uncertainties forced upon them with the closure of their school which has become a second home,” Hevesi said.
Assemblyman David Weprin said he hopes a constructive dialogue can take place and that the decision to close UNIS Queens will be reconsidered and reversed.
“Part of the problem is the lack of transparency, the lack of information and the lack of communication as to why they are really closing. If it’s about running out of students, we’re in the midst of a pandemic and have been for most of the past two years; it’s not the only school with pandemic issues,” Weprin said. “If it’s about recruiting more students, it can be done easily. Hopefully once the word gets out of what happened we can bring everyone together.