MERGE AHEAD

Merging two small East Harlem schools makes sense on paper. So why has it sparked a backlash?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Global Tech Prep community members spoke out about plans to merge the school at a recent public hearing.

When students returned this fall to Global Technology Preparatory, a small middle school in East Harlem, everything seemed off. The principal and most of the teachers had been replaced, and their classrooms were now crowded with unfamiliar students in green uniform shirts, instead of blue like theirs.

The new students were from P.S. 7, a K-8 school in the same building, and people at Global Tech say the joint classes were part of a long-planned consolidation of the two schools that began unofficially last fall — months before the city’s Panel for Educational Policy officially approved the merger on Wednesday.

The threat of the consolidation was partly to blame for the exodus of Global Tech’s teaching staff and principal. After students began taking classes together this fall, clashes were common, along with calls to the police. Now, a school once known for its tight-knit community, intimate class sizes, and focus on technology has been transformed — and not for the better, according to students, parents, and staff.

“It felt more like a community,” said eighth-grader Scarlet Rivas. “Now we don’t have any of that.”

The merger of Global Tech and P.S. 7 follows 21 previous consolidations that Carmen Fariña, New York City’s retiring schools chief, has ordered during her tenure. They reflect her skepticism of the small-schools movement, which led to the creation of hundreds of new schools during the tenure of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg under the premise that they offer more personalized attention and better results than the typical large campus. (Several studies have shown that students had better outcomes at the city’s small high schools than students who attended larger schools.)

Instead, Fariña has argued that very small schools cannot sustain enough teachers and programming to provide students a rich experience, since funding is allocated partly based on enrollment. Consolidation allows schools to pool their resources, slash administrative costs, and put money back into classrooms.

Global Tech was a prime candidate for consolidation. Already small, its enrollment shrank to 120 students this year — too few for the school to afford such basics as a licensed technology teacher, a foreign language instructor, or a parent coordinator, according to education department officials.

Michael Aciman, a department spokesman, disputed the claim that the merger informally began this fall, saying the joint classes represent the kind of collaboration between schools on shared campuses that the city encourages. After the merger officially occurs, it will benefit students at both schools, he added.

It will “address challenges with low enrollment, and create a stronger school option for families with more robust resources and academic programming,” he said in a statement.

But even if the merger makes logistical sense, it has still sparked a backlash.

Since Global Tech opened eight years ago, its staff has prided itself in offering students a portal to the world outside East Harlem, working with organizations that connected students with corporations, allowed them to perform on a Broadway stage, and created opportunities to learn coding skills at Google’s New York offices.

Now, as Global Tech’s faculty and students prepare to be absorbed by P.S. 7, they fear the partnerships, mission, and culture that defined their school will vanish. To them, that feels less like a consolidation than a closure.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Kayla Hamilton, a former Global Tech teacher, criticized the merger.

“Even if you still close down Global Tech, please process what these young people are saying,” Kayla Hamilton, a former Global Tech teacher, told a panel of city officials at a recent hearing, speaking through tears. “These are people’s lives.”

Word of the city’s plan to combine Global Tech and P.S. 7 first trickled out about three years ago, around the time Fariña instructed local superintendents to flag small schools that could be candidates for consolidation. Superintendent Alexandra Estrella, who oversees East Harlem’s District 4 and has clashed bitterly with another school in the past, told former Global Tech Principal David Baiz about the merger plan in 2015, he said.

After failing to convince Estrella to drop the merger, Baiz said, he lobbied other education department officials to keep the school open — a move that landed him in hot water.

“All of a sudden I was labeled as problematic,” he said, adding that he began being summoned to disciplinary meetings. “I got the picture, so I left.” (He is now earning a doctorate in education leadership at Harvard.)

After he resigned at the end of last school year, 14 of the school’s 16 teachers followed suit. The exodus shook the school, stripping it of much of its institutional memory and sense of community, parents and students said.

The proposed merger was not the sole reason teachers fled; several said that Estrella had denied their tenure applications, raising fears that their careers could be jeopardized if they stayed. However, some connected the tenure decisions to the merger, suspecting that the superintendent wanted to bring fresh faces into the newly combined schools.

“She wanted us out,” said Arnold Kim, a former Global Tech teacher who said his tenure application was blocked. “She can’t do a full makeover if all of the teachers are still there.”

An education department spokesman said Estrella made tenure decisions “after thoroughly reviewing the recommendations and carefully observing classroom instruction.”

Whatever the causes, the mass departure of teachers and the joint classes with P.S. 7 appear to have destabilized Global Tech.

Students with disabilities have received less individual attention this year due to a shortage of special-education teachers, according to school personnel and parents. (Aciman, the education department spokesman, said that Global Tech and P.S. 7 work together to meet the needs of students with disabilities.)

And police have responded to 911 calls involving the campus 31 times since September, while five people have been arrested on campus, according to the police department — a greater number of calls and arrests than during the entire 2016-17 school year.

“When you go there it’s just complete chaos,” said Jasmine Carrasquillo, whose two sons attend Global Tech, recalling a recent visit where she saw students roaming the hallways. “That would never have happened before.”

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of the New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the main Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem.

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.