NYC's School Closing Gambit Leaves Students Behind

New York City's efforts to fire half the staffs at 24 struggling schools took another turn last week -- and like everything that has happened in the last six months at these schools, the latest twist seems unlikely to help the thousands of students in these buildings.

The ruling by an arbitrator on Friday blocking the removal of hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers at the schools represented a resounding win for the teachers union and the principals union and a humiliating loss for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The ruling plunges the schools into a state of uncertainty. But if the arbitrator had ruled the other way and the teachers had lost their jobs, the schools still would have faced tough times. For the children, once things got to this point, it was a lose-lose situation.

"So, what else is new?" the students might say. Most of the schools have struggled for years. The city has done little to help and, in some cases, made bad situations worse.

Six Months of 'Turnaround'

The 24 schools all have had longstanding problems. They were among 33 struggling schools set to embark on one of four strategies designed to improve the school and to receive federal School Improvement Grants.

In January, Bloomberg announced 33 schools would go through the turnaround process -- the most draconian of the federal strategies. (The city eventually reversed itself on nine of the schools.) The city Department of Education would close these schools and remove at least half their staffs. The buildings would reopen with new names, new programs and new personnel in September.

The United Federation of Teachers challenged the move. As an arbitrator reviewed the case, teachers, administrators and aides received letters telling them they no longer had jobs. The arbitrator's move Friday halted that process.

The Good and the Bad

By ruling as he did, the arbitrator helped some bad teachers keep their jobs. But he almost helped some good ones as well. Even bad schools have good teachers (and good schools have bad ones).

A young man attending one of the turnaround schools, John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, told a hearing in April that his school "makes me want to learn... It is one of those schools that I can go to and know that there are people that look after me."

"My teachers were amazing," Deion Harrington, who just graduated from Dewey, told me. He spoke of teachers who went the extra mile to give students extra help and, if that didn't work, asked a colleague to give it a try. "No matter where you were sent, it was like family," Harrington said. (For more on Dewey, see my story in City Limits, "Who Killed John Dewey High?")

Earlier this year, I visited another turnaround school, with a needier student population. Undoubtedly some teachers there were marking time. But I also saw many working hard to help students who come from families under a lot of stress -- impoverished, new to this country, not speaking English.

A few teachers usher students whose parents know little of the intricacies of applying to college through the process. "It helped me a lot," one girl said. Other students spoke of their writing instructor, a business teacher or an athletic coach who helped them focus in high school and succeed.

Under the mayor's plan all of those teachers would lose their jobs. If they wanted to stay, they would have to apply, have an interview and show why they were entitled to a job they might have done very well for 5, 10, 20 years.

Quick Fix

"I can just tell you, there are 24 schools, [and] almost all students there are minorities, single-digit-proficiency levels," Bloomberg said on Monday, obviously piqued at the arbitrator's decision. "These kids, if they're there for one more year, will never recover in their entire lives."

But these schools did not fail overnight or did they fail for any single reason. Some poor teaching played a role. So did poverty. And so did things the Bloomberg administration has -- and has not -- done.

For almost 10 years, the administration has squeezed its toughest students into a dwindling pool of schools and then penalized those schools for not doing a good job. It has focused on little schools and charter schools and shut or ignored many big schools, especially ones that are not elite or in affluent neighborhoods.

Overall the new small schools Bloomberg created have boosted test scores and graduation rates. But they cannot accommodate all the students the big schools once did. So, the small schools select their students. This does not mean all kids at small schools are top students. But it does mean that they applied to schools, filled out a form and were assigned somewhere, courtesy of New York's opaque high school choice process.

The small schools do not have as many students with serious disabilities as many schools slated for closing. Most do not accept the city's most challenging students -- so-called "over-the-counter" kids who are not assigned to any high school. One "turnaround" principal told me many students enter her school after leaving prison. Other students arrive having had little to no education in their home countries.

Not surprisingly, schools with many such students have low graduation rates, low Regents scores -- and low grades on the school report cards, known as progress reports. DOE says it compares schools to their peers -- but that is a rough measure. It does not, for example, point out that a 16-year-old never spent a day in school until enrolling in, say, Flushing High School.

Challenging kids have a right to an education of course, but experts believe there is a tipping point. If more than 40 percent of students have low scores coming into a school, "you substantially reduce the graduation rates of the total school. ... You have to control your school composition so you don't concentrate kids with low skills," says Norm Fruchter, senior scholar at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Instead, he told me, "DOE has a list of schools they think are not going to make it... and they insure that their predictions come true."

"The prevailing philosophy under 10 years of Bloomberg is small schools are the answer to the high school problems," Clara Hemphill, founding editor of Inside Schools, has said. She believes those school help many children, but "what DOE hasn't come up with is a strategy for the big schools."

For large, comprehensive high schools to work they must have some high and middle achieving students as well as struggling ones. What Bloomberg has done is take those students away, so, Hemphill said, "the stronger schools get stronger, the weaker schools get weaker."

Schools get a particular jolt when a nearby school that also served these kids closes. Dewey suffered when DOE shuttered nearby Lafayette High School. John Adams has had an influx of kids who once might have gone to Rockaway or Beach Channel High Schools. Elected officials charge DOE packed 4,000 teenagers into Lehman High School after it closed many other Bronx high schools. And so on. With the closing of schools, one educator says, "We finally have found a domino theory that works."

While it lavished attention on some small schools, Bloomberg's Department of Education made other decisions that hurt large schools. At Lehman, for example, it replaced the longtime principal Robert Lederer in 2008.

"Parents of Lehman students have been stunned by the school's precipitous decline, as it has long been considered one of the city's best remaining large high schools," Gotham Schools reported in 2010. After Lederer left, it continued, "Safety has become a problem and... the school installed metal detectors. Teachers and students say the new principal rarely leaves her office."

DOE replaced that principal in 2011. A few months later it decided to shut Lehman. "After all this disruption and all this ruckus, the DOE had better damn well turn this school around, because now they are going to be held accountable and then some," City Councilman James Vacca said at a public meeting.

Dewey alumni and City Councilman Domenic Recchia, tried for years to get DOE to remove the principal there. It finally did -- but only after it announced its decision to close Dewey.

Meanwhile the department over the years stripped away many parts of Dewey's progressive program that had made it a national model after it opened in 1969. "It became like a Jenga game," says Naomi Berger, a 1975 graduate and a founder of the John Dewey Alumni Association. "Their answer to every problem is to remove another piece until the tower falls down."

No End in Sight

So what happens now?

On Monday, the city said it will ask the courts to delay the arbitrator's ruling until he releases the reasoning behind the decision. In other words, the city no longer wants to adhere to a decision it agreed would be binding by a referee who it approved. Meanwhile it canceled a scheduled meeting with the teachers and principals unions over where to go from here.

It's a strange way to put children first. But as students at the 24 schools know all too well, that's nothing new.