With the last of the official announcements of the schools targeted for closure by Chancellor Klein, the final grim toll can be tallied. An unprecedented twenty-one schools have been told that the Department of Education will begin their phase out in September 2010. Fifteen of those schools — a completely disproportionate number — were high schools.*
With this wide swath of devastation, there can be no illusion that this is a process based on an educational calculus. The evidence simply tells a very different story: the Chancellor could not close significant numbers of Elementary and Middle Schools, once 97% of them scored A and B on School Progress Reports that so heavily weighted the wildly inflated and broken state exams. So Klein decided that to reach his targets, he would close high schools in much larger numbers. Among the high schools slated for closure are schools which are in good standing with the New York State Education Department and schools which are meeting their Annual Yearly Progress benchmarks under No Child Left Behind, as well as a school which just received the school-wide bonus. The list includes schools which never received a School Progress grade lower than C, and schools which actually improved on every measure in the School Progress Reports.
Why take a machete to New York City public high schools in this way? The reason is not difficult to decipher. The Chancellor needs a great deal of space in public school buildings to pursue his political and ideological agenda of creating and supporting new charter schools and new DoE schools. Since it had become politically untenable to create that space by closing large numbers of elementary and middle schools, the space would have to be found in high schools.
What is telling is that the one high school which received an F grade this year, Peace and Diversity Academy in the Bronx, was passed over when schools were chosen for closure. DoE representatives said that the school had been unfairly bounced from location to location like a ping pong ball, and that this was the major cause of the school’s plummeting graduation rate. Of course, the DoE spokespersons puts these failures in the passive voice — the infamous ‘mistakes were made’ — in which no one takes actual responsibility for what was done wrong. In DoE-speak, accountability is a term that applies only to educators and schools, not educrats. Restore the active voice, however, and they are exactly right: what DoE officials at Tweed did to Peace and Diversity was inexcusable, and the school community should not be punished for the failures of DoE management.
But the same case can be made for high school after high school that were closed. In case after case, Tweed’s mismanagement was directly responsible for whatever trials and tribulations the school is experiencing. There are schools on that list that have had thoroughly incompetent and inept administrations, brought to the attention of Tweed by the UFT, schools where DoE officials acknowledged the problem and promised changes — only to fail to follow up. Now the school communities are being told that they need to bear the burden of Tweed’s failures.
Just as importantly, the DoE concentrated students with the greatest need in the schools slated for closure: high schools receiving an A grade had an average peer index of 2.53, while high schools receiving a D and F grade had an average peer index of 2.13 — a very robust and significant difference, with schools receiving a D and F grade bearing a far heavier concentration of need. [The ‘peer index’ is the DoE’s own measure of the concentration of need: for high schools, it is based on the 8th grade ELA and Math exam scores, adjusted for the numbers of Special Education students and overage students.]
Equally significant is the contrast in students with special needs: when compared to schools receiving an A grade, schools receiving a D grade had nearly a third more special education students, with all of the additional number coming from students with the more severe learning disabilities. Schools receiving a D grade have, on average, four times as many students with the more severe learning disabilities.
HIGH SCHOOLS RECEIVING ‘A’ GRADES
HIGH SCHOOLS RECEIVING ‘D’ GRADES
11.5% OF STUDENT POPULATION
16.5% OF STUDENT POPULATION
9.15% IN LEAST RESTRICTIVE ENVIRONMENT
9.2% IN LEAST RESTRICTIVE ENVIRONMENT
1.9% IN MORE RESTRICTIVE ENVIRONMENT
7.67% IN MORE RESTRICTIVE ENVIRONMENT
Yet what extra supports has the DoE given these schools to aid their efforts to teach such concentrations of the highest needs students? Where are the funds for lower class size, the caps that keep the schools from being overcrowded, the assistance in establishing special programs to meet the needs of their student population, the provision of meaningful professional development?
What distinguishes the schools the Chancellor slated for closure from Peace and Diversity is not Tweed’s failures or the DoE’s responsibility for their current plight, but the fact that Peace and Diversity was a small school created on Joel Klein’s watch — it was one of the select circle Klein likes to call “my schools,” as if every public school should not belong to a Chancellor with a seven year tenure. When it comes to a high school created before Klein’s reign, be it large or small, Tweed accepts no responsibility for its management failures.
THE COLUMBUS STORY
One school which is being slated for closure — Columbus High School in the Bronx — exemplifies the profound injustice that is being done to closing high school communities. Before Klein’s tenure and the creation of legions of small high schools in the Bronx, Columbus had a significant, but manageable concentration of high needs students. But as surrounding comprehensive high schools were closed and small schools which took very few high needs students opened, it was sent more and more high needs students. Today, nearly in 1 in every 5 students are English Language Learners [ELL], and nearly 1 in every 4 Columbus students are Special Education, with the bulk of these — 13% of the school’s population — in a more restrictive setting. Last year’s graduation cohort entered Columbus four years earlier with only 6% meeting ELA standards and only 14% meeting Math standards. The bottom third of the population sent to the school is made up entirely composed of students with scores of 1 on the state exams — far below standard.
By the DoE’s own peer index standard, Tweed created in Columbus High School the second highest concentration of need in New York City’s 400 high schools. But the peer index is calculated in a way that fails to capture a great deal of the need concentrated in Columbus, such that the true picture is much more dire than DoE statistics acknowledge. The peer index for high schools measures from 8th grade test scores, but a very significant portion of Columbus students have no 8th grade scores — in large part, these are ‘over the counter’ admissions spread out over the school year. They include recent immigrants who do not speak English and often have interrupted formal education in their native country, students returning from correctional institutions such as Rikers Island, and transfers from the citywide Special Education and Alternate High School districts. In short, these are students with the greatest need, but are largely unaccounted for in the peer index of the School Progress Reports. To have an idea just how many of these students Columbus receives, note that half of their students taking the ELA and Math Regents exams last year had no 8th grade scores and that last year Columbus received 360 over the counter admissions — over 25% of their total student register. [‘Over the counter’ admissions are a crucial measure of need not simply because those students are disproportionately drawn from the pools of highest need, but also because the way in which they are sent to a school, by dribs and drabs over the course of a school year, disrupts the school’s program and schedule and deprives the students of the full term of instructions in their classes. Schools with admissions tests, screened programs and small high schools receive virtually no ‘over the counter’ admissions, leading to their concentration in large comprehensive high schools like Columbus.]
The ‘peer index’ also fails to distinguish between special needs students in the least restrictive environment and in a more restrictive environment, failing to take into account the greater challenge posed for high schools with large numbers of students with the most severe learning disabilities, such as is the case with Columbus.
If the c0ncentration of need were not bad enough, Tweed also overcrowded Columbus. When last year’s graduation cohort entered Columbus in the fall of 2004, Tweed had the school operating at 180% capacity. Since the building was being shared with small schools, this left Columbus with no choice but to go on back-to-back schedules: 7 AM to 12:30 PM, and 12:30 PM to 6 PM. The academic program was stripped down to the absolutely essential, and the extra-curricular activities were decimated. With the difficult schedules, truancy and cutting increased, as students skipped classes to go to jobs and pick-up siblings from their schools.
The top leadership of the DoE understood full well what they have been doing to Columbus. When Michelle Cahill was Senior Counselor for Education Policy at the DoE, she commissioned a study by the Parthenon Group which examined, among other things, how different high schools performed with high needs students. They found that there was a tipping point at which the concentration of high needs students became so overwhelming that it created an obstacle virtually no school could completely overcome. When it comes to the high schools created in the last seven years which the Chancellor calls “my schools,” Tweed goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid such overwhelming concentrations of need. But not so for Columbus and other older high schools. At various time over the last five years, the UFT and others have raised with the DoE leadership the admissions policies that created this overwhelming concentration of need at Columbus High School, to no avail.
Last June, when the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs studied the reform process in New York City’s public high schools, it found that the DoE’s creation of new schools had significant “collateral damage.” The disproportionate concentrations of high needs students in closing schools were not redistributed, but deflected almost entirely to neighboring comprehensive high schools which then began to decline. If one looks at a map of the large comprehensive high schools just announced for closure, one can see that they are geographically proximate to schools that were closed in previous years: Maxwell proximate to Jefferson, Bushwick and Franklin K. Lane; Paul Robeson to Prospect Heights, Wingate, and Tilden; Norman Thomas to Martin Luther King and Park West; Beach Channel to Far Rockaway; Smith to South Bronx… and Columbus to Evander Childs and Adlai Stevenson.
But the tale of what Tweed did to Columbus is only half of the story. Faced with this challenge, most schools would have surrendered. Not Columbus. With an accomplished staff, a preeminent Teachers Center, and a caring, excellent leadership, they rolled up their sleeves and went to work: they would find a way to educate and care for whomever Tweed sent to them. The school reorganized into four small learning communities in the 9th and 10th grades, and created another program focused on career and educational future in the 11th and 12 grades. Special programs were created for students with particular challenges: ‘Boys to Men’ for male students with severe behavioral issues, ‘Women’s Empowerment’ for analogously situated female students and Renaissance Academy for students with substance abuse, teen pregnancy and physical abuse issues. They put together an ELL program to support the large numbers of ELLs they educate. Here is a powerful video Columbus put together on its programs.
In its justification for its decision to close Columbus, the Department of Education points to absolute measures such as four year graduation rates and Regents passing. What it fails to provide is any context for those statistics. Tweed cites the fact that only 50% of last year’s graduation cohort met standards for ELA, but it neglects to point out that the school made dramatic progress, given that only 6% of that cohort met ELA standards when they entered the school. It makes much of the four graduation rate, but fails to note that Columbus sticks by its high needs students as long as it takes and graduate large numbers in 5, 6 and 7 years. Indeed, the latest 7 year graduation rates [p. 24] shows Columbus at 81.5%, nearly ten percentage points better than the citywide average of 72.2%. Finally, it ignores the fact that the same flaws in the School Progress Reports that failed to account for the true depth of need created at Columbus by its admissions policies [the reliance upon 8th grade test scores] also meant that the school did not receive full progress credit for advancing those high needs students who did not take those exams — fully 1/2 of the Columbus cohort. The School Progress Reports simply do not provide an accurate grade of the excellent work down at Columbus HS.
In sum, when the DoE asserts that “Christopher Columbus has shown a lack of capacity to improve student performance in significant and consistent ways,” it is not only dead wrong, but attempting to shift responsibility for the immense challenges and obstacles it created for a praiseworthy high school community.
PERSISTENT FAILED MANAGEMENT: DÈJÁ VU ALL OVER AGAIN
What is particularly unfortunate about Chancellor Klein’s decision to target twenty-one schools for closure is that it is not simply the culmination of Tweed’s persistent management failures at those schools, but the breeding ground of yet more rounds of failure. All one has to do is read the DoE’s educational impact statements to realize that it does not have any meaningful plans for replacing the high school seats it is eliminating through the closure of 15 high schools. If Chancellor Klein gets his way and these closures take place, there will be massive overcrowding once again at comprehensive high schools neighboring closing schools. Immense concentrations of high needs students will be sent to these schools, tipping them toward failure. In budgetary hard times, the Absent Teacher Reserve pool will be flooded by educators excessed from closing high schools, as they will not be able to find new high school positions.
What needs to be phased out are not New York City public schools, but the persistently failed management of the New York City Department of Education.
* For the sake of clarity, the list follows. [Since New Day Academy is a 6-12, it has been counted twice on some lists.]
PS 332, D23
ACE M344, D5
KAPPA II M317, D5
Middle School Grades of FREDERICK DOUGLAS III, D9
MIDDLE SCHOOL FOR ACADEMIC AND SOCIAL EXCELLENCE K334, D17
GLOBAL ENTERPRISE X541
PAUL ROBESON K625
NORMAN THOMAS HIGH SCHOOL M620
BEACH CHANNEL HIGH SCHOOL Q410
ALFRED E. SMITH X600
BUSINESS, COMPUTER APPLICATIONS & ENTREPRENEURSHIP HIGH SCHOOL Q496
CHOIR ACADEMY OF HARLEM M469
MONROE ACADEMY FOR BUSINESS/LAW X690
ACADEMY OF ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE SECONDARY HIGH SCHOOL M635
JAMAICA HIGH SCHOOL Q470
NEW DAY ACADEMY [6-12] X245
ACADEMY OF ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE M635
W. H. MAXWELL CAREER AND TECHNICAL EDUCATION HIGH SCHOOL K660
METROPOLITAN CORPORATE ACADEMY HIGH SCHOOL K530
SCHOOL FOR COMMUNITY RESEARCH AND LEARNING X540