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Collateral Damage

April 12, 2010

By Norm Fruchter

Last June, Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) published Empty Promises, a study of what happened to English Language Learners (ELLs) when the NYC Department of Educacion (DOE) restructured Lafayette and Tilden, two large Brooklyn high schools. The AFC report got relatively little notice, but its findings were devastating. As the report’s Executive Summary indicated:

  • Tilden and Lafayette had many ELL students, as well as students with special needs and overaged and under-credited students.
  • ELLs in Tilden and Lafayette during the two schools’ phasing out process received less support and fewer services and, in some instances, were pushed into GED classes.
  • Most of the small schools that replaced Tilden and Lafayette took very few, if any, ELL students or failed to provide them with legally mandated ELL programming.
  • The phasing-out of Tilden and Lafayette destroyed two large and diverse bilingual education programs, since no bilingual programs were created in the new small schools that replaced Tilden and Lafayette.
  • As the two high schools began to phase out, ELL enrollment in nearby large high schools rose, which increased the risk that those schools, in turn, would become candidates for closure.

The AFC study highlights the “collateral damage,” (as The New Marketplace report from the Center for NYC affairs calls the DOE’s small schools/school-closing strategy) the DOE inflicts on both ELL students and surrounding large high schools.   How does the DOE view such “collateral damage”? Does the DOE think that the affected students are relatively few, compared to all the students supposedly benefitting from the system’s school closings/small schools strategy? At least half the city’s high school students are still enrolled in large high schools; does the DOE hope to close all those large schools and create enough small schools to replace them? How will the system produce the new principals and teachers such a strategy requires, given the high rates of principal and teacher turnover in the new small schools? Recent studies suggest that, as the new small schools age, their student outcomes increasingly resemble the student outcomes of the larger high schools.  If this trend continues, the DOE’s large school closing/small school creation strategy may ultimately amount to continually reshuffling students rather than improving their learning opportunities.

Norm Fruchter is a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform

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