study says...

Internal report stokes questions about city's closure strategy


A high school’s size and its concentration of low-achieving and overage students strongly predicts its graduation rate, according to an internal Department of Education study obtained by GothamSchools today.

The 20-page report, prepared for the city by the consultant firm Parthenon Group in 2008, gives fodder for both supporters and critics of the city’s strategy of closing low-performing large high schools and replacing them with new small schools.

The presentation shows that large schools struggle to serve large concentrations of challenging students. But it also suggests that the Department of Education knew about this problem years ago but continued to allow many large schools to be flooded with low-performing students.

Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and an outspoken critic of the city’s school closure efforts, provided the report to GothamSchools.

The report examines how a students’ chance of graduation varies widely depending on the type of high school he or she attends.

For example, a hypothetical black or Hispanic girl with the median city test scores and middle school attendance and no special needs would have an 83 percent chance of graduating from a small school with a low concentration of challenging students. The same student would have just a 55 percent chance of graduating from a large high school with much higher percentage of students with special needs.

Those predictions were born of a model the Parthenon Group drew up to predict high schools’ graduation rates using their size and concentrations of challenging students. The consultants then compared their predictions to city schools’ actual graduation rates, and found that they were spot on 77 percent of the time. Just a fifth of schools posted rates 10 percentage points above or below their predictions.

Just one large high school with a high concentration of students who enter ninth-grade low-performing, overage or with low attendance rates — Harry Truman High School — posted higher graduation rates than the consultants’ model predicted.

The model’s success suggests that as large high schools currently slated for closure began to enroll higher numbers of challenging students — as a report released today showed they did — it would seem likely that their graduation rates would decline. Critics of the city’s practice of closing schools frequently argue that the city flooded previously well-functioning large neighborhood high schools with low-achieving students and then punished the schools with closure as they began to flounder academically.

The report also shows a wide gap in graduation rates between the new small schools opened under the Bloomberg administration and other city high schools. But most of that gap is accounted for by local diplomas awarded by the schools.

Other studies have shown that small schools relied heavily on the local diploma to power their higher graduation rates. The Parthenon report adds a comparison to large high schools — and finds that the large and older high schools are not much further behind.

For example, for students entering high school with a low level 2 on their eighth grade state tests, new small schools post graduation rates that are 26 percentage points higher than other schools. But the gap between those students who eventually earn Regents diplomas is much smaller — just 7 percent.

That distinction is important because the state is in the process of phasing out the local diplomas, arguing that they are not rigorous enough to prepare students for college. Observers have warned that small schools’ reliance on local diplomas mean graduation rates could plummet when the new tougher requirements go into effect, though city officials have said they are making changes at the middle school level to prepare for the change.

The report also questioned small schools’ ability to sustain their high performance, a criticism that has been made by other studies, including a 2009 report from the New York City Center for Public Affairs.

But the report also showed that a disproportionately high number of the schools outperforming their predicted graduation rates are small schools with relatively high rates of overage and low-performing students. Of the schools that the report says “beat the odds,” 34 percent are small schools with medium to high rates of students entering ninth grade overage.

City officials said today that the report helped inform and validate their small school approach and described the reports’ findings as precursors to more recent studies that found small schools boost graduation rates.

“This was an internal study, but it confirms what we’ve seen time and again: our new small schools have been enormously successful in educating students and helping them graduate,” said DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld.

In its concluding slide, the presentation asks several questions raised by the reports’ findings. One of those questions suggests that the city could have prevented some large high school’s academic slide by changing admissions policies to prevent them from enrolling much larger numbers of struggling students:

Should we consider constraints on the [high school] admissions process that take into consideration the predicted graduation rate of the school? (e.g. “don’t allow any school to have a predicted rate less than 45%”)

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”