A Long Island City High School student takes a break from his booth to meet an umbrella cockatoo from George Washington Carver High School.
The white cockatoo perched on a student's shoulder during last weekend's Citywide High School Fair was just one squawking example of the lengths schools go to set themselves apart from eighth-graders' 500 other high school options.
But for a small group of schools, those that the Department of Education tried but failed to close, winning the affections of eighth-graders could mean the difference between life and death.
The schools were slated for an aggressive overhaul known as "turnaround" until an arbitrator ruled this summer that the process violated the city's contract with the teachers union. Turnaround would have caused the schools to close and reopen with different names, teachers, and programs. The high school of another school, Manhattan's Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts, was never at risk, but its reputation suffered when the city moved to shutter its middle school.
All of the schools are under pressure to demonstrate demand by December, when high school applications are due and when the Department of Education announces its annual school closure proposals. The department frequently cites low demand as a major reason for moving to close schools.
Many of the ex-turnaround schools already have lower-than-usual enrollment, after last year's tumult, which started in the middle of the high school admissions progress. Many also now have new principals, programs, and organizational problems. Still, the staff and students who spoke to GothamSchools on the second day of the fair said they are putting their best foot forward.
Long Island City High School
During a brief lull in the fair on Sunday, juniors Arissa Hilario and Wendy Li took a break from waving families over to the Long Island City High School booth to admire Winter, an umbrella cockatoo from George Washington Carver High School making the rounds in the area for Queens schools.
New York City's process for assigning students to schools still sets some of the schools up to fail, State Education Commission John King charged today.
"I continue to have concerns about enrollment," King said. "I worry about the over-concentration of high-needs students in particular buildings without adequate supports to ensure success."
King made the comments to reporters during a break in a meeting of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's state education reform commission, which met this morning in the Bronx.
City officials have acknowledged King's concerns when petitioning the state for aid, but they have never conceded that high concentrations of needy students could hurt schools. Today, the Department of Education official in charge of enrollment said recent changes to the way some students are assigned to schools, made quietly last summer, were meant to increase choices for families, not respond to King's concerns or help struggling schools.
King's concerns reflect longstanding criticism about the Bloomberg administration's school choice policies. For years, critics have charged that the department overloads some schools with needy students, making it hard for them to show progress or even sustain their past performance. An internal department report completed in 2008 and obtained by GothamSchools last year concluded that a high school's size and concentration of low-achieving and overage students strongly predicts its graduation rate.
A slide from the IBO's report about schools up for closure.
For the third year in a row, the city's data watchdog has concluded that the schools the city is trying to close serve especially needy students.
In 2010 and 2011, the Independent Budget Office put together longer reports about the city's school closure proposals on the request of Robert Jackson, chair of the City Council's education committee. But this year, the office, which has a special mandate to scrutinize the Department of Education's facts and figures, compiled details about the demographics, performance, and funding of schools on the chopping block on its own. Then it released the statistics in an easy-to-read, stand-alone format.
Among the many people who are receiving the IBO's 13-slide presentation by email today are the members of the Panel for Educational Policy, who are set to vote on the closure proposals tonight, according to spokesman Doug Turetsky.
"It's an accessible format so people can see the stats and come to their own conclusions," he said.
UPDATE: Department of Education officials disputed some of the data in the slides and said the budget office had not given them as much time to review the report before publication as an agreement between the two offices requires.
They urged the IBO not to release the report and then to retract it once it was published because data on at least one slide did not match information the city had provided. The budget office retracted one slide that showed change over time in the number of students with special needs at the schools.
But other slides showed that the schools up for closure enroll more than the average proportion of students who have disabilities, are overage, or are considered English language learners, confirming analyses published elsewhere.
Yesterday's high school progress reports release put 60 schools on existential notice.
Fourteen high schools got failing grades, 28 received D's, and another 14 have scored at a C or lower since at least 2009 — making them eligible for closure under Department of Education policy.
In the coming weeks, the city will winnow the list of schools to those it considers beyond repair. After officials release a shortlist of schools under consideration for closure, they will hold "early engagement" meetings to find out more about what has gone wrong. City officials said they would look at the schools' Quality Reviews, state evaluations, and past improvement efforts before recommending some for closure. Last month, they said they were considering closure for just 20 of the 128 elementary and middle schools that received low progress report grades.
The at-risk high schools are spread over every borough except for Staten Island and include many of the comprehensive high schools that are still open in the Bronx, including DeWitt Clinton High School and Lehman High School, which until recently were considered good options for many students. They also include two of the five small schools on the Erasmus Campus in Brooklyn and two of the three small schools that have long occupied the John Jay High School building in Park Slope. (A fourth school, which is selective, opened at John Jay this year.)
They include several of the schools that received "executive principals" who got hefty bonuses to turn conditions around.
Nearly half of students who started ninth grade in 2006 are enrolled in college right now, but only a quarter of them were ready for it, city data shows.
The numbers were revealed today when the Department of Education released high school progress reports for last year. For the first time, the reports include data about each school's course offerings and college enrollment rate, although that information will not be factored into schools’ grades until next year.
Schools that receive a grade of F or D, or get three C grades in a row, could face closure. This year, 41 schools received D's or F's, an increase over last year, while fewer high schools received A grades than in any year since the progress reports were created in 2007.
Speaking to reporters this morning, Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief academic officer, attributed those changes to a tougher set of requirements around student performance on state tests, credit accumulation, and documentation for student discharges.
"I think we're tightening things up and we've gotten a more precise result," he said.
Eighth-graders and their parents began queuing up outside Brooklyn Technical High School on Saturday an hour before the annual citywide high school fair's start time, and by 9:45 a.m. a long line of families wrapped around the block. When the doors opened at 10 a.m., they poured into the stuffy building, some of the tens of thousands of families that passed through the fair this weekend.
Inside, Brooklyn Tech's eight stories were something of a labyrinth — but no more so than the high school admissions process itself. Parents and students that we met outlined varying strategies for navigating the fair and the journey to high school.
Laura Napiza with daughter Samantha, left, who wants to be a teacher
Laura Napiza and her daughter Samantha tried traversing the hallways but seemed completely lost. “We just got here and it’s very overwhelming,” Laura Napiza said. “We’re looking for a high school with a strong academic program that also has something that she’d be interested in. Right now she wants to be a teacher.”
They said their goal was to visit the Queens High School of Teaching, Liberal Arts, and the Sciences and Maspeth High School — if they could find those tables. Saying they planned to inquire about graduation rates, student-to-teacher ratios and extracurricular options, the mother and daughter disappeared into the melee.
Spencer Jackson and Beverly Brailsford creating a plan of attack for the fair
Beverly Brailsford and her son Spencer Jackson came in with a clear plan of action: Head straight to the seventh floor and methodically work downwards, hitting only the schools with strong academic programs and track and field teams. First, though, the pair found a quiet hallway where they could sit down and prepare. With the high school directory in her lap, a pen in her hand, and a notebook turned to a fresh page, Brailsford took notes on schools such as Aviation High School and Medgar Evers College Preparatory School while Jackson played on his phone. “I think it’s more of a mom thing,” Brailsford said of the process. “As long as they have what he’s into, it works for him.”
Jamaica High School students, teachers and parents cheer a speaker at the school
For the past two weeks, education officials have spent nearly every weeknight holding public hearings at each of the 25 district schools the city wants to close next year. Seventeen of the schools are in this for the second go-around, after a union lawsuit foiled the department's attempt to close them last year.
As a result, this year's hearings are both formatted differently — part of an attempt to better explain the closure decisions and avoid another lawsuit — and less emotional, despite communities' still-simmering anger and frustration.
GothamSchools reporters recently attended three of these hearings.
Jamaica High School
The group of students, teachers and parents that gathered in Jamaica High School's auditorium was smaller than the large, boisterous crowd that packed last year's hearing.
But, as several students pointed out, the school is also smaller this year. After the courts blocked the city from closing Jamaica and 18 other high schools last year, the size of the incoming freshman class shrunk dramatically.
For the second year in a row, the city has awarded fewer top progress report grades to high schools.
Nearly 70 percent of high schools received A's or B's on this year's reports, which are being released today, down from about 75 percent last year and 83 percent in 2008.
And more schools will have to endure a year of having the letter "F" branded on their report cards. Last year, the city gave only one F, but this year nine schools got that grade, and another 23 received D's. Schools that receive a grade of F or D, or get three C's in a row, are at risk for closure. The city has indicated that it might try to close more schools this year than in past years.
This year's high school grades were more stable than those for elementary and middle schools, which were released last month. Elementary and middle school reports are based almost entire on state reading and math scores, and lower scores statewide caused grades to fall this year at about 70 percent of schools.
Rejecting small schools with themes like social justice or green jobs as "boutique schools," parents in central Queens are demanding that the city build them a large, comprehensive high school. And, after years of the city closing big schools and championing those boutiques, city officials have agreed.
At a meeting in central Queens last night, Executive Director of School Improvement Alex Shub said the Department of Education intended to build a 1,100-seat school building in Maspeth. The school will open in 2011 or 2012, depending on how quickly the city finds and hires the right principal, Shub said. But when it does, it will be one school, not several small high schools housed in a single campus as has become the norm.
"People want one large comprehensive school. You don't want a bunch of boutique schools, a dance school, a school for lawyers," Shub said to the parents assembled at P.S. 58.
"It sounds like people speaking now are interested in a comprehensive school that is going to give your kids every opportunity for success. And I can guarantee you a school that can do that."
Thirty six charter schools could open in New York City next fall in the first wave of new schools allowed under the charter school law passed in May.
Legislators voted to more than double the cap on charter schools, permitting 260 new schools over the next four years, of which 114 could be in New York City. Today, the state announced that 47 school leaders applied this month to open new schools in 2011, 30 of them in the city. An additional six schools applied to open in New York City as part of SUNY's Charter School Institute's earlier summer deadline, bringing the total of schools looking to open in the city in fall of 2011 to 36.
Ten of the new applicants want to open in the Bronx — most in the South Bronx — and another 10 want to open in Brooklyn. Eight have applied to open in Manhattan, one in Queens, and one in Staten Island.
In a shift, 10 of the new applicants are high schools. Currently, just 13 city charter schools serve grades 9-12, although more are set to add those grades as they expand. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch last year challenged charter school operators to open more high schools, saying that is where the need is greatest. One of the proposed schools would join Wildcat Academy as the only charter transfer schools. Another is Christopher Columbus Charter High School, the school proposed to reincarnate the Bronx school that's slated to close.
Graduating seniors celebrated today inside the Cobble Hill School of American Studies
Today was a roller coaster for Kenneth Cuthbert, principal of the Cobble Hill School of American Studies in Brooklyn.
At 1 p.m., he stood inside a new basement auditorium he excavated from a former garbage dump and watched more than 100 of his students graduate to shattering cheers. A few hours later, he learned that he might lose his job.
Cobble Hill has been named one of the 34 city schools the state will attempt "turn around" as part of an Obama administration program. The news Cuthbert received this afternoon, in an e-mail message from Chancellor Joel Klein, is that Cobble Hill will undergo the so-called "transformation" model — the less severe model that preserves a school's teaching staff, but still endangers its principal.
State rules say that all schools on the federal list should lose their principals, but city officials are considering appealing for some principals to stay, and the principals union is pressuring them to save these jobs. So far, Cuthbert doesn't know where he falls.
"They need to do what’s in the best interest of the children," he told me this afternoon, after receiving the news. "I will be fine. God sends us here with gifts, talents, and abilities. What are you going to do? You play the hand you’re dealt. We’ve played it for the last several years."
His mixed feelings reflect the fact that, for the five years that he's been principal, Cuthbert has seen himself as on a war path to improve the school — and he feels like he's made important steps. Last year's four-year graduation rate was 65 percent, up from 42 percent two years before. Since he came, the school has launched several new programs, including a law program that he said is behind increasing enrollment. (Achievement statistics on the school can be found here and here.)
In a recent speech to the NAACP, President Obama name-dropped a New York City public high school, saying that more schools should emulate Bard High School Early College and push students to earn college credits in addition to their high school diplomas.
A recent BHSEC graduate who now attends Williams College, Kesi Augustine, explains in a Huffington Post column what makes the small, super-selective school on the Lower East Side so special. (A replica opened last year in Queens.) It's not just that students can earn as much as two years of college credits before graduating, she writes:
The most rewarding part of my experience at BHSEC, however, WAS more than just the Associate's degree. The school introduced me to critical thinking and writing about my place in the world. Our teachers did not give us the recipe for performing well on state-wide tests and SATs, although we performed well in that respect, too. Rather, our small classes thrived on student energy in open seminar discussions and debates about course material. ...
If we are going to strive for the educational equality Obama calls for, every American student should have the education I did. I was more than prepared for success in "real" college, largely owed to what I learned at BHSEC.
The high school report released today shows that the Gates Foundation's support for small schools was worthwhile, according to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.
His statement contrasts with the foundation's own evaluation of its small schools spending, which it said last year had not produced the academic gains it had hoped. Bill Gates himself said in November that while New York City's small schools have done better than others his foundation started, the schools still do not adequately prepare students for college.
Delivering introductory remarks before a panel discussion about small schools this morning, Klein said the Center for New York City Affairs report "confirms the work of the Gates Foundation," which provided much of the funding that allowed the city to open small schools.
Today's report "carefully documents" that the schools have gotten better results than the large schools they replaced, Klein said — and with the same type of students, contrary to the charges by critics who say the small schools' students start off better prepared. (In the schools' early years, they enrolled students who were slightly less at-risk, but they now admit their fair share of overage students, students with disabilities, and students who are learning English, the report concludes.)
Despite his generally favorable review, Klein disputed some of the report's findings, especially around graduation rates.
The city's drive to open new small high schools has taken a serious toll on older, larger schools, and there are signs that the new schools' success could be short-lived, according to a report being released today.
The report, an analysis of the small schools bonanza by the Center for New York City Affairs, concludes that the city must do more to support large high schools, which continue to enroll the vast majority of city high school students despite the proliferation of small schools, and which are straining under the burden of enrolling the system's neediest students.
At the core of the report is the finding that as small schools opened, large schools nearby suffered huge jumps in enrollment, especially among low-performing students and students with special needs. Those schools have seen attendance decline, disorder increase, and graduation rates drop, according to the report. In some places, these shifts have caused the city to restructure the newly troubled large schools, displacing at-risk students once again, the report concludes.
Schools Chancellor Joel Klein told researchers that he understands that his strategy of closing low-performing schools and replacing them with new options could inflict some collateral damage on large high schools. "This is about improving the system, not necessarily about improving every single school," he said about the strategy at the center of his reforms since he took office in 2003.
The report backs up the city's claim that the small schools graduate their students in higher numbers, but it raises questions about how long the schools can sustain their success.
Ever since a Daily News column highlighted declining numbers of black and Hispanic students at an elite Manhattan high school, students there have been trying to figure out how to bolster diversity. Tonight, they are holding a forum to confront the topic head on — but their school won't be participating.
Beacon High School has accepted fewer minority and low-income students every year since it adopted a selective admissions procedures in 2005, even as the total number of students has been rising, according to the May 15 column by Juan Gonzalez in the Daily News.
The column reignited an ongoing conversation at Beacon about the school's changing demographics, a Beacon senior, Cory Meara-Bainbridge, told me. After it appeared, a group of about 15 students banded together to plan a forum to begin a tough conversation about how the school's unique admissions procedures might influence who applies and gets into the elite Upper West Side high school. Beacon requires not only high grades, strong test scores, and a portfolio of work, but also an in-person interview for admission. Current students sit on the interview committees.
So far, students say, the school's administration has declined to participate in the discussion.
Six years after Schools Chancellor Joel Klein vowed to crack down on a bureaucratic loophole that allowed principals to hide students' failure to graduate high school, a new report (PDF) suggests that the loophole remains open and may be growing wider. The report calls for closer study of the students classified as "discharges" — departures from the system, but not dropouts — through steps including a state audit.
The report says that 21 percent of students who entered high school in 2003 both never graduated and were never counted as dropouts, instead falling into a category known as "discharges." The percentage was up from 17.5 percent among the Class of 2000. The rate is especially high among special education students, and includes a remarkable jump in 2005, when the special education discharge rate shot up to 36 percent from 23 percent in a single year.
Students classified as discharges can include those who left the school system for legitimate reasons, such as moving to another state, deciding to enroll in an outside G.E.D. program, or death. But some advocates have argued that principals can also misuse the discharge code, entering students who simply dropped out in order to inflate their graduation rate artificially.
A recent audit of 12 high schools in New York State by the state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, found that high schools classified students as G.E.D. discharges who did not actually enroll in a G.E.D. program. "As a result," DiNapoli's audit concluded, "the report cards understated the number and percentage of dropouts and overstated the percentage of graduates for some of the schools we reviewed." The audit did not probe any New York City high schools.
Two persistent critics of the Bloomberg administration compiled the report: the executive director of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson, and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, Jennifer Jennings. Jennings was the author of the now-defunct Eduwonkette blog, whose analysis of New York City education data became (as I reported) a thorn in the Bloomberg administration's side. The report is being released at a press conference this morning held by a third critic, the city's public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum.
City school officials were already disputing the report's claims yesterday, before it had been released.
Charter school principal Eddie Calderon-Melendez, right, speaking to parents and students at his schools' admission lottery. (<em>GothamSchools</em>, Flickr)
The conventional wisdom about charter schools is that they allow families a way out of their zoned schools. But for soon-to-be high school students, charter schools actually provide the nearest alternative to a zoned option, according to one school operator.
The high school admissions program run by the Department of Education is citywide, meaning that students can apply to any school in the city. But the state law governing charter schools treats high schools just like schools serving younger students: They are required to give priority in admissions to students living in their school district.
Because many charter schools have more applicants than seats, charter high schools necessarily end up with mostly students from their district. For that reason, "we're actually a throwback to the zoned school," Eddie Calderon-Melendez, the principal of Williamsburg Charter High School, told me last week at the lottery for the three schools in his Believe Network.
Is there school choice in New York City? It depends whom you ask.
Ask in Harlem, and members of Harlem Parents United, a group organized by charter school operator Eva Moskowitz, might tell you that there is: They have all chosen charter schools for their children and are aggressively pushing the neighborhood's families to have even more options. They have allies in Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who count increasing school choice as a cornerstone of their reforms.
But ask a high school student who wants to change schools, and you might get another answer entirely. According to an article in the New York Post, ninth grader Kimselle Castanos said she asked the Department of Education for a transfer dozens of times but didn't get one until she was assaulted by students from another school in the building. The DOE thinks the Post got some major facts wrong, such as how many times Kimselle e-mailed the chancellor, officials told me today. But even if it did, the real story remains that in a system that boasts about the choices open to students, Kimselle and her family felt stuck in a school that wasn't right for her.
I heard from countless parents, students, and advocates desperately seeking school transfers when I worked at Insideschools, through the hotline run by parent organization Advocates for Children. Callers reported that their transfer requests, particularly at the high school level, had been denied even though they had compelling reasons for seeking them. Those calls continue to pour in, my former colleague Pamela Wheaton, Insideschools' executive director, told me today.
"For whatever reason, it has become increasingly difficult, almost impossible, to get a transfer to another regular high school," Wheaton said.