Punishing the Victim: DOE’s Approach to Banana Kelly High School
by Norm Fruchter
In December, 2010, the New York State Education Department placed Banana Kelly High School on the State’s list of Persistently Low Achieving (PLA) schools. Many critics, including some of the writers for this blog, have charged the DOE with setting up for failure high schools that struggle with difficult-to-educate student populations. (See, for example, New York City Independent Budget Office. (2011). Demographics, Performance, Resources: Schools Proposed for Closing Compared with Other City Schools. New York: IBO; Bennett, J. (2011). Third Turn of the Screw: The DOE and Closing Schools. New York: United Federation of Teachers, UFT Blog, http://www.uft.org/node/28350).
That seems to be the case with Banana Kelly. The school serves very high proportions of students eligible for free lunch — 72% compared to 58% citywide, very high special education (17%) and ELL populations (17%) – compared to 12% and 13% respectively citywide, and its incoming students have quite low proficiency levels – a 2.63 eighth grade proficiency rating for their entering class, compared to a 2.94 rating citywide.
Worse, between 2006 and 2009, Banana Kelly’s enrollment increased by 60% (291 students to 465 students), its percentage of homeless students went from 2% to 9% (5 homeless students to 40 homeless students), and its four-year graduation rate dropped from 62% to 52%, compared to a citywide increase from 49% to 59%.
When the State Education Department (SED) identifies a school as Persistently Low Achieving (PLA), the city’s Department of Education (DOE) is required to develop an action plan to better support the PLA school’s students. All four of the federal action plan options that the DOE can consider – (1) Transformation, (2) Turnaround, (3) Restart and (4) Closure – require the removal of the principal, and the replacement of half or more of the present teaching staff. On Monday, May 9th, the DOE sent its federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) application to the state. In that application, the DOE defined which option it will impose on Banana Kelly.
The SED identification of Banana Kelly as a PLA school also triggered a “pre-Engagement” process which the DOE is required to convene with the school’s constituencies — staff, parents, students and community — to discuss what should happen to the school. So on the evening of March 31st, Bronx High School Superintendent Papaliberios convened a meeting about the fate of Banana Kelly that packed the school cafeteria with over 200 parents, students, community members, local political figures, and leaders of local educational and social support organizations.
The students, parents, and community members who spoke at the March 31st meeting praised the effectiveness, commitment, and dedication of the school’s principal, Joshua Laub, as well as the teachers and staff of Banana Kelly. All the speakers urged Superintendent Papaliberios take into account, in her recommendations, all the great work that the Banana Kelly principal and staff had accomplished. Below three students recapitulate the testimony they presented.
Aqieb Ahmed, Student
I am currently a senior at Banana Kelly high school, graduating as of June 2011. I was once considered a former LTA ( long-term absentee) student during my sophomore year. I never came to school because I never gave it a chance, and I was easily influenced by negative surroundings and people. My sophomore guidance counselor had gotten deeply worried, had a meeting with me and pushed me to come to school.
The teachers here always take time to help tutor us for our Regents exams after school. They don’t get paid extra to tutor us but they still devote their time to us. They make sure we understand the Regents subjects so we can achieve high scores. My principal Joshua Laub worked hard to create a safe environment for Banana Kelly students; he is like a surrogate father to many.
The option of transforming my school highly disappoints me and angers me. Supposedly Banana Kelly has to be transformed because of our “low graduation rates”. There are a couple of reasons why we have low graduation rates. One, because we are being over-filled with ELLs (English language learners), Special Education students and over-age freshman students. Secondly, we do not have luxuries such as a gym, auditorium, and a library. For our physical education classes we have to walk a block to the Police Athletic League and borrow their gym. We do not even have enough tables and chairs in our school.
There are some classes students wish to have, and some extra-curricular activities and after school programs, but the school can’t afford them. If Banana Kelly was funded properly and the amount of ELL, Special Education and over-age freshman students was limited, I guarantee a dramatic increase in our graduation rates. Why can’t we get support from the Board of Education to overcome these issues and work with us to improve our school, rather than destroy it?
Banana Kelly High School has helped me realize my potential, not only as a student but as a young adult. The teachers have not only taught me subjects like history, mathematics, reading and writing and art, they have equipped me to think about life after high school and what I can achieve. This school is my home and if you take that away from me I have nothing.
Alejandra Ciriaco, Student
I spoke about the lack of tools to help the school function properly. I mentioned how the school needs a gym and an actual laboratory. I spoke about how the Board of Education expected so much from us even though we lacked many supplies. Banana Kelly is a big family where I have grown into this school.
A school is like a house. We need bricks to create a house, even though we have the architects and constructors. The bricks are every piece of the environment so that this house will stay strong as to creating a home. We need the bricks to create and to make our dream home to come true.
The moment I talked to the representative [Superintendent Papaliberios], my words came from the heart. The message I said was meant to be heard by everyone. I said those words because there is no reason to destroy the bond between me and my classmates and the teachers at Banana Kelly High School.
Why break hopes and dreams when we can make them come true instead?
Xian Padilla, Student
I attend Banana Kelly High School, and I think that this school is one of the best high schools ever. The teachers are hard-working and really care for the students and their education. This school has the programs and the help you need to succeed in life. During my time here I have taken tests and classes that benefit what I need for my future. The Children’s Aid Society’s program at Banana Kelly has the help you need in subjects like History, Global, Science, Art, Music, cooking class, Math, English, and Health. I pretty much have no complaints towards this school and am looking forward to graduating as a senior this year.
The students’ testimony adds their experience to the argument that Banana Kelly’s identification as a PLA school was caused by the DOE’s student assignment policies, combined with its failure to provide the school with the necessary resources. Banana Kelly’s history seems another clear example of the DOE’s tendency not simply to blame the victim, but to create victims and then punish them.