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We Are Students, Not Statistics!

April 10, 2011

On April 10th, NYC high school students from the Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC), along with parents from the Coalition for Educational Justice and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, called on Chancellor-designee Dennis Walcott to begin his tenure by fixing the City’s failed strategy for dealing with struggling schools. The UYC released a report showing that tens of thousands of students have been abandoned by the Department of Education’s policy of school closings. Read a summary of the report below.

In the past decade, Mayor Bloomberg’s Department of Education (DOE) has focused its systemic school improvement efforts on one key strategy — closing poorly performing high schools. The DOE has privileged school closure as its primary school improvement policy, as opposed to major initiatives to transform struggling schools from within. If this policy continues, more than 65,000 students – more students than the entire Boston public school system – will have had their high school experience marked by school closure. Because the DOE has a responsibility to ensure that those students do not become policy casualties, it must invest as much effort in ensuring a rich, rigorous, college-preparatory education for students in the final years of a closing high school as in developing and nurturing the new small schools they continue to create.

The UYC report – No Closer to College: NYC High School Students Call for Real School Transformation, Not School Closings examines what happened to students in the 21 schools that have completed their phase-out since 2000, when the DOE announced the first school closings, and predicts the destructive impact that school closings may have on students in the high schools that may be at risk of closing next.

The students who attended the 21 closed high schools, almost all of whom are Black and Latino, had significantly higher needs and were much more academically under-prepared than the students across the city’s high school system.

  • 74% were eligible for free lunch, compared to 55% citywide
  • 21% of students were English Language Learners, compared to 13% citywide
  • 46% were overage for grade, compared to 29% citywide
  • 89% were below grade level in ELA and 91% below grade level in math – compared to 67% and 70% respectively, citywide

Predictably, the academic outcomes of these 21 schools in their final years before closure were also much worse. A much lower percent of the students in the 21 schools graduated, a much higher percent dropped out, and a sharply higher rate were discharged. At some schools, discharge and dropout rates skyrocketed in the final years of phase-out:

  • At Taft High School, the dropout rate spiked from 25% the year closure was announced to 70% the year that the school closed
  • At Morris High School, the discharge rate rose from 33% the year closure was announced to 55% the year that the school closed

Given that some 33,000 students attended the 21 high schools in their final years, the absolute numbers behind the percentages are quite startling:

  • 5,612 dropped out,
  • 8,089 were still enrolled,
  • 9,668 were discharged,
  • Only 9,592 actually graduated.

Moreover, indications are that only 15% of the graduates in the closing schools received a Regents diploma, compared to 41% citywide. Similar outcomes can be predicted for students at the schools currently at risk of closing unless the DOE changes policy and invests in ensuring a high quality education for those students.

Instead of intervening aggressively to help the lowest performing schools improve, the DOE has consistently neglected to provide the comprehensive guidance and supports that struggling schools need. Reports from the NY State Education Department (SED) on 17 schools identified by the state as Persistently Low Achieving (PLA) found that at least 14 of the schools were not provided the assistance from the DOE necessary to raise student achievement. Furthermore, SED reviews of the 11 schools currently implementing the federal transformation model found that the DOE had largely not met their commitment to guide and support the school transformation plans.

The destructive policy of school closings now threatens two additional groups of the city’s high schools: 14 high schools that the Panel for Educational Policy recently voted to close, and 24 PLA high schools. To improve the prospects of poor and working class students of color entering high school academically under-prepared, the Urban Youth Collaborative proposes that the DOE suspend its high school closing policy and instead implement a set of comprehensive interventions to improve the schools:

1. Invest in struggling schools instead of closing them

  • Create a central High School Improvement Zone to that brings together struggling and closing schools to help them assess and meet the needs of students
  • Create a set of interventions that are put into action when a school is at risk of closure
  • Ensure that students with excessive absences, ELL, and special education students are assigned to schools able to meet their needs

2. Build meaningful partnerships with students and community

  • Create stakeholder committees at struggling and phasing out schools that include parents, students, teachers, administrators and community organizations in assessing the school’s strengths and weaknesses, identifying and creating plans for improvement, and hiring staff

3. Provide an engaging and rigorous college preparatory curriculum

  • Emphasize and integrate literacy and math skill development across courses in ninth grade
  • Offer a wide range of subjects instead of just those assessed by high-stakes tests
  • Provide access to hands-on, high-level and college credit-bearing courses  
  • Support teachers through ongoing professional development and mentoring
  • Create advisories and summer academies for incoming ninth graders

4. Support students in accessing college

  • Implement early college preparation and orientation programs
    • Hire one college counselor per every 100 students in struggling schools
    • Create an early warning system that immediately identifies students who are struggling and off-track for graduation or college and triggers interventions to help

5. Ensure a safe & respectful school climate

  • Create supportive school environments that utilize non-punitive approaches to safety and get at the root of problems, such as Restorative Justice or Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports

No student should be abandoned as a casualty of school reform policy. High school students from low-income communities of color across the city call on the DOE to launch an aggressive effort to provide these supports to all struggling schools, as a step towards the common goal of guaranteeing a college and career ready education for all students.

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