empty seats

Despite major city investment, struggling ‘Renewal’ schools shed another 6,300 students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School has seen two principals depart since the Renewal program started.

The struggling schools in New York City’s “Renewal” improvement program serve nearly 6,300 fewer students today than when the program started, a sign that many families are still shunning the schools even as the city spends hundreds of millions to revamp them.

Eighty-one of the 94 schools in the program — or 86 percent — enroll fewer students now than they did when the program launched in fall 2014, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. The schools with high school grades lost an average of 146 students each, with many shedding far more: DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx serves nearly 600 fewer students today than it did in 2014.

Enrollment had been dwindling at most of the schools in the Renewal program well before it began. But the hugely expensive program — which is projected to cost nearly $839 million over five years — has so far failed to stem the exodus of students. In fact, the year-over-year enrollment drop at those schools was larger after the Renewal program started than in the two prior years.

The schools’ overall enrollment fell from about 45,140 students in 2014 to roughly 38,870 today, according to the analysis. They are losing students in a variety of ways: Some are dropping out, others are transferring, and fewer students who arrive mid-year are being sent to those schools. At the same time, many are enrolling fewer students as demand for their seats diminishes.

“You have 94 schools you’ve sort of said are your loser schools,” said Kim Nauer, education research director at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “We have a system with a lot of choices, and the ‘Renewal school’ label is not helping them.”

Recently, the city has taken steps to boost enrollment at the schools, including by allowing more students to apply to them. As a result, officials said they project a 13 percent increase in incoming sixth-graders at Renewal middle schools this fall.

However, Renewal high schools are expected to enroll 7 percent fewer ninth-graders this September. That suggests that the city’s enormous investment in the schools has not yet rehabilitated their reputation among families and students, who are able to apply to any of the city’s roughly 400 high schools.

Sagging enrollment is an existential threat for New York City schools, since their budgets and staff levels are determined largely by the number of students they serve. When school populations shrink past a certain point, the city must inject them with extra funding just to maintain basic courses like math and English, to say nothing of art classes and extracurricular programs.

This academic year, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced plans to consolidate seven Renewal schools and shut down three others mainly because they had grown so small.

“Schools with such a low enrollment cannot provide the robust education our students deserve,” she said in December.

In the past, de Blasio administration officials have indicated that the threshold for being able to provide a full range of classes and services is 250 students. There are now 23 Renewal schools serving fewer than 250 students, excluding the 10 schools already slated to be closed or combined.

Brooklyn Generation School in Canarsie has shrunk by 65 students since 2014, despite a higher graduation rate and a suite of new arts classes and counseling funded by the Renewal program. Assistant Principal Louis Garcia said the school has coped with the funding loss by slashing expenses.

“We just don’t buy paper,” he said. “We’re trying to keep everybody on staff.”

The enrollment dip at Brooklyn Generation is dwarfed by that at other Renewal high schools.

Since 2014, Herbert Lehman High School in the Bronx has shed 577 students, John Adams High School in Queens has lost 394 students, and Flushing High School, also in Queens, shrank by 381 students. The population of Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School plummeted from 648 to 343 students — a 47 percent enrollment drop from one school year to the next.

Overall, the 35 Renewal schools with high school grades are down 4,900 students since 2014.

The enrollment at many Renewal elementary schools also fell, even though they are assigned students who live near them. For instance, P.S. 132 in Manhattan serves 90 fewer students now than it did in 2014, while P.S. 165 in Brooklyn is down 52 students. The declines could be caused by families opting for charter schools or taking advantage of a federal law that lets them transfer out of the lowest-performing schools.

Part of the overall decline was due to the city intentionally sending some of the Renewal schools fewer students who enter the system after the official admissions process, since those students can pose extra challenges. In addition, some high schools have trimmed their own rosters by referring some of their most struggling students to “transfer” high schools, which are designed to catch up students who are behind in credits.

Still, paltry demand for seats at the Renewal schools appears to be a major enrollment challenge. Staffers at a few schools said the city had done little to help them pull in new applicants.

“They give generic advice about marketing yourself,” said an administrator at a Renewal high school. “It’s just on us to attract students.”

City officials are hoping that their recent efforts will slow the schools’ enrollment slide for the coming year.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said the city provided four training sessions this fall where Renewal middle and high school leaders learned recruitment strategies, including how to showcase their schools at application fairs and how to use data to target their outreach efforts. Department employees also made house calls last year to tell families about the new services offered at Renewal schools.

And in the latest admissions round, the department opened the Renewal middle schools to any fifth-graders in their boroughs — not just their districts, as is the case for many middle schools. After that change, the schools received about 5,000 additional applications this year, Mantell said.

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.