closing calls

Graduation rates show closing schools not always the worst

When choosing which schools to close, city officials say they pick the worst of the worst. But new graduation data released today shows that the city doesn’t always follow its own criteria.

Earlier this year, Department of Education officials announced their intention to close 19 schools based on the schools’ abysmal graduation rates and low test scores. Many of the schools on the list were high schools where less than half of all students graduated and progress reports were dotted with Cs and Ds. But absent from that list was Washington Irving High School, which has the city’s lowest graduation rate among traditional high schools and the highest drop-out rate.

In January, the Panel for Education Policy voted to begin closing a school 16 blocks north of Irving: Norman Thomas High School. Washington Irving was spared. But a look at the school’s graduation numbers and progress reports shows that in some respects, Irving is performing more poorly than Thomas is.

Washington Irving once was one of the city’s behemoth schools: a grand building in the middle of Gramercy filled with students from Harlem and the Bronx. Like Norman Thomas, it serves a high number of students with learning disabilities and recent immigrants, many of whom don’t speak English. In the last three years, Norman Thomas received Ds on its report cards, while Washington Irving was given two F grades and a C. Most recently, Norman Thomas’ graduation rate has increased slightly to 43 percent, while Washington Irving’s has decreased to 39 percent.

Both schools are on the State Education Department’s list of 34 city schools that it wants to see replaced.

Throughout the school closing hearings, critics have charged that the schools the DOE wanted to close didn’t meet the department’s own criteria and that some were even improving. At a City Council hearing, Deputy Chancellor John White defended the department’s choices.

“This is not a random list; these are the lowest performers even considered among a set of schools where students are not achieving at acceptable levels,” White said.

Going by graduation and drop out data for the class of 2009, Washington Irving is the city’s lowest performer, not including transfer schools and schools that have already been closed based on similar data. It’s not the only struggling school the city has decided to keep open, but it stands out when compared to those that are being closed this year, such as Global Enterprise High School, which has a graduation rate of 53 percent and received two Cs and a B on its progress reports in the last three years.

But DOE spokesman Daniel Kanner said the department focused on other criteria when deciding to keep Irving open.

“We look at a variety of factors when determining which schools to target for phase out and the 19 schools that we proposed to be phased out demonstrated a long-standing inability to serve students well,” Kanner said. “We take different actions based on different circumstances.”

Unlike some other schools that were closed for poor grades and graduation rates, the DOE saw Washington Irving floundering and gave it a boost.

Rather than close the school after it received two F grades, the department assigned Washington Irving an executive principal, Bernardo Ascona, who was given a $25,000 bonus to improve the school’s academics. The DOE also began downsizing the school, which had over 2,500 students in 2006 and has about 1,400 this year, according to its website.

“We’ve seen the school move from an F to a C,” Kanner said. “We’ve seen significant increases in 9th grade credit accumulation. We have more work to do but we have taken action and we’ll continue to build on the progress that we see they’ve made over the last year.”

Washington Irving students  said they like the new principal, but with so many students cutting class (the attendance rate hovers around 70 percent), the school hadn’t improved.

“The principal is trying really hard, but the students aren’t helping him achieve what he wants to,” said Imane Saif, a sophomore.

Ascona did not respond to requests for comment.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.