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Closing Schools: For Vulnerable Students, a Lesson in Darwin

We already know that the DoE generally ignored its own accountability standard in choosing what schools it wants to close. This is especially troubling since the schools that made the list tend to serve the city’s most vulnerable students, students whose academic lives are already in freefall, and who arrive in need of intensive services if they are to be successful.

We see this right in the DoE data. Let’s compare the chosen high schools (mostly the DoE is closing high schools) to high schools citywide, and also to high schools with comparable accountability grades that will not close. What we see is that it does not seem to be the quality of the schools that drove the decision; it was the kids.

This seems true whether we compare these three groups according to the proportion of the population that needs Special Education services…

Percent Special Ed

…or by the 8th grade scores of the incoming students:

Incoming (Grade 8) Scores

As the charts show, many students arrive at the DoE’s targeted schools academically behind their peers and need intensive academic, social and emotional support during their stay. These greater needs are also reflected in the average “peer index” for each group. The peer index is a DoE statistical creation that is designed to capture the relative needs of each school. The lower the number, the greater the need. Closing schools tend to serve students with more needs:

DOE peer index

Numbers and charts cannot begin to represent the special challenges these schools face. Nor can they show how our schools rise to meet these challenges even as the DoE looks to shut them down (not least because the Progress Report grades seem to reflect the demography of students, not the real work of the schools). To get a sense of what’s behind the numbers, click here and watch a video from Christopher Columbus, on the chopping block this year. Or, read what Quality Reviewers said about Beach Channel, where 20% of the students arrive needing the services of Special Education.

But, beyond those issues, the high populations of vulnerable students in the closing schools gives rise to a question: if the DoE is going to shut the schools of high needs kids, then what plan does it have to ensure that our most vulnerable students (those in high school now, and those who will come later) get the educational opportunities they need?

If past is prologue, and if we are to believe the DoE’s Educational Impact Statements, then the answer is no plan at all. DoE only tells us that current students generally have the opportunity to stay in schools that are phasing out (a depressing way to spend high school), and that current and future students will also “have the opportunity to apply” to other schools.

If you want to know the real meaning of that “opportunity to apply” when it comes to Special Education students, ask the community of Far Rockaway High School. Two years ago, DoE slated this Queens high school for closure. The school is in the process of phasing out, and as its overall population declines, Far Rockaway has wound up with a significantly greater concentration of Special Education kids than the small schools at the same site that are replacing it.

Percent Special Ed

Actually, the overall percent of Special Education students tells only half the story. Not only do the replacing schools take in fewer Special Education students, but those they do take are students who have milder physical, emotional, or academic needs and who can succeed in regular classes as long as they have some additional support. Far Rockaway, on the other hand, serves young adults whose needs are more intensive and require significantly more resources including very small classes and – depending on the student – significant social and emotional support:

Percent High Need Special Ed

[All figures come from the Special Education Delivery Report. From DoE home page, fill in the school’s name or number and then, from the school’s site, click Statistics.]

As you can see by looking at the two graphs, Q302 and Q309 have only 10% and 14% Special Education students respectively, and none of those students have emotional or learning disabilities that require extensive support. FDA does have 6% of its students in high-needs Special Education programs, but Special Education as a whole is only 8% of its population. Compare that to Far Rockaway with a full 20% of its population needing Special Education services, and then 55% of that group arriving with high needs.

This isn’t some calculated conspiracy on the part of replacement schools. Showing a stunning lack of imagination, the DoE creates nothing but small schools that have only about 125 students per grade level. Even if 10% of their overall population were high needs (50 students), there still might not be enough students to fill a teacher’s program. Generally speaking, unless these schools take very high proportions of Special Education students, they can no more provide for them than the can launch a football team or stage a full-scale play.

But though the problem does not stem from calculated malfeasance, it is no less of a glaring example of distressing mismanagement on the part of DoE.

What is more, Far Rockaway’s past is likely to be Beach Channel’s future. Beach Channel did not “fail” the DoE’s closing standard, but DoE is still planning to close it. As the only other comprehensive high school on the peninsula, Beach Channel serves students that other schools cannot (and according to the Quality Reviews, it does that well). Already the school shares its building with a small high school that enrolls fewer Special Education kids…

Percent Special Ed

…none of whom have high needs:

Percent High Need Special Ed

Meanwhile, DoE is poised to replace Beach Channel with yet another small school. Most likely it will be just as unable to serve high need students as the small school already there.

Enthralled by its own ideology (“let the market decide”), the DoE seems oblivious to the Darwinian situation it has created in our schools. The fittest schools do indeed survive the threat of closure, but in part they are able to do so because they serve the “fittest” population – the one that will have the least trouble meeting the demands of the accountability reports. Meanwhile vulnerable students with their “opportunity to apply” wind up concentrated in the only schools that can take them. High school accountability formulas (the Progress Reports) seem to skew against these schools, but even if these schools meet the demands of accountability (like Beach Channel and its Quality Reviews) DoE targets them for replacement and once again the most vulnerable kids are left behind.

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2 Comments:

  • 1 Remainders: Millions for math and science teachers | GothamSchools
    · Jan 6, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    […] Edwize looks at how the schools that are slated to be closed have some of the most difficult students. […]

  • 2 Phyllis C. Murray
    · Jan 12, 2010 at 5:16 am

    Re.” Meet old-school new teacher’s union boss Michael Mulgrew ” byThomas W. Carroll -The Daily News

    Mr. Carroll:

    If the Lorax can speak for the trees, certainly our union can speak for NYC Public School students. The systematic chopping down of our public schools, which provide equity for all children, has to end. And as UFT President Mulgrew states:“New York’s charter school experiment has led to some promising innovations, but as a group New York City charter schools have become a separate and unequal branch of public education, working with a far smaller proportion of our neediest students than the average public school.”

    The UFT has not just begun advocating for all children. For fifty years its belief that teachers want what students need has continued. Equity for all children is paramount. Therefore, when UFT President Mulgrew speaks of the neediest students, like his predecessors, (Cogen, Shanker, Feldman and Weingarten,) he champions the basic right of all children ,whether in special education, bilingual education or general education, to have access to a quality education.

    The wanton closing of NYC public schools created by Pro “Once-lers” in the Charter Making business must end. We need to fix and not close our public schools. Our public school system worked for our earlier immigrants like Henry Kissinger. It must continue to work for all students today. It’s elementary.

    Phyllis C. Murray, UFT