By the numbers

City’s struggling schools face another annual test: enrollment

Herbert Lehman High School in the East Bronx, a struggling school that the state recently labeled as "out of time" to make drastic improvements.

The city’s efforts to turn around nearly 100 long-struggling schools are likely to run up against enrollment roadblocks, according to an analysis by the city’s education data watchdog group.

Of the 94 schools in the city’s Renewal program, 80 have seen their enrollment dip over the last two school years, and 14 have seen more than one-third of their total enrollment disappear since 2013, the Independent Budget Office’s numbers show. The schools are also serving an outsize share of English language learners, black students, Hispanic students, and students in temporary housing — all of whom typically post lower-than-average test scores and graduation rates.

“To the extent that these schools continue to be avoided by students and families,” the report says, “it is likely that they will consist of higher concentrations of the students most in need.”

The findings mirror the IBO’s annual analyses of schools slated for closure under the Bloomberg administration, which repeatedly found that high-needs students were concentrated in schools with low test scores and graduation rates. The numbers raise old questions about the city’s enrollment policies and new ones about the de Blasio administration’s school-improvement strategy, which doesn’t include mechanisms for reducing the concentration of needy students at Renewal schools.

“Most of the kids who are coming into those schools are already way behind,” said David Bloomfield, an educational leadership professor at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Grad Center. The schools’ low test scores “are not only a result of not getting those kids up to the level of proficiency, but also that they’ve been dealt a hand that puts them behind to begin with,” he said.

Low enrollment poses its own less-discussed challenges. Because school funding is largely determined by enrollment, schools with few students often struggle to offer special-education services or elective classes. Twenty-six of the city’s Renewal schools now enroll fewer than 250 students, and nine enroll fewer than 150, as Chalkbeat reported earlier this month.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has begun moving to merge a few of the city’s smallest schools (only some of which are in the Renewal program) into larger ones, citing those problems.

Some schools in the city’s Renewal program, especially high schools and those middle schools in competitive school districts, know the enrollment problem well. In March, representatives from high schools with seats left to fill in their ninth-grade classes gave recruitment another try at the city’s second-round high school fair.

One was John Starkey, who started as interim acting principal of Peace and Diversity Academy in the Bronx a few months ago. The high school, which is a part of the city’s turnaround program, now has just over 150 students, and Starkey said he was moving quickly to figure out how to draw new students. The school’s four-year graduation rate was 34 percent last year.

“Enrollment is a big issue for us,” he said. “When your numbers are so low, it affects the money you’re bringing in, what you can do, your programs, your class size.”

As he shook hands with prospective students, Starkey rattled off a half-dozen ideas. He was working to restart a partnership with the Anti-Defamation League, continuing peer mediation training for students, thinking about launching a dual-language program, and trying to find new outlets for students to play basketball and even take Zumba classes.

In addition to more general academic improvements, those offerings would give Peace and Diversity “something to set us apart, help us advertise,” Starkey said. “We want to be a viable program.”

The Academy of Urban Planning, a high school in the Bushwick campus that is also part of the turnaround program, had a less traditional booster: former teacher and softball coach Johnny Alicea, who explained that he had been excessed as enrollment dropped but hoped to return. The school now serves around 260 students.

The city’s highest-profile enrollment decline has happened at the long-struggling Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, which has served more than 4,000 students in the past and where the register now shows just over 500 students enrolled. A guide for students said the school still had room to accept nearly 500 students in next fall’s ninth-grade class after the first high school admissions round.

This year, the city also decided not to send students who entered the school system late to Boys and Girls and Automotive High School, another school in the turnaround program. Those “over the counter” students often pose extra challenges but would also have boosted enrollment.

The enrollment problem is an outgrowth of policies introduced by the Bloomberg administration, which closed many of the city’s large, traditional high schools and replaced them with smaller schools. Many of those have thrived, while others found it difficult to recruit students for untested schools with unfamiliar names. Schools can also find it hard to escape what some call an enrollment “death spiral,” when a school’s problems prompt higher-achieving prospective students to enroll elsewhere, compounding a school’s academic troubles.

The closures reduced the number of big high schools serving mostly high-needs students, but the IBO’s numbers show that they are still more concentrated in low-performing schools.

Twenty percent of students at Renewal schools are classified as English language learners, compared to 14 percent of students in other city schools. Fifty-two percent of students at Renewal schools are Hispanic, compared to 40 percent at other schools. The share of special-education students was more similar, with 21 percent classified as having a disability at Renewal schools compared to 18 percent at other schools.

Eleven large, traditional high schools are also in the turnaround program. Together, all 29 Renewal schools serving high school students last year had a four-year graduation rate of just 51.7 percent.

Next year, schools in the Renewal program will have an hour added to the school day and receive money for new after-school programs and more teacher training, according to city officials. Overall budgets will increase by an average of $250,000, money officials have said will help schools better serve English learners, special-education students, “and other young people who need extra help to catch up.”

“Lifting up our schools requires real resources – and that is what we are committed to delivering,” Fariña said in a statement.

Raymond Domanico, the IBO’s director of education research, said that even with those resources, each school’s challenges will remain connected to its ability to attract and retain students.

“If the enrollment continues to decrease, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for the school system to meet the goal of improving its schools,” he said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”