New York State’s No Child Left Behind waiver has spawned a new list of struggling schools that education officials could close if they don’t post dramatic improvements by 2015.
That list includes many schools that were identified as struggling by the state in the past and have undergone deep reform interventions or begun phasing out, but now labels them as “priority schools.” In New York City, there are 123 priority schools, nearly double the schools once identified as “persistently low achieving” because their students performed poorly on state tests and posted low graduation rates.
The schools are being called priority schools because their statistics are grim, officials said. The state determined which schools would be identified as priority based on four-year graduation rates (under 60 percent) in high schools and a student growth formula from state test scores in elementary and middle schools that places the schools in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide, per guidelines set by the federal government.
The districts will have just three years to improve these data points, according to a release the State Education Department published late this afternoon, and must submit transitional plans for each priority school by October. And for the first time, State Education Commissioner John King will have the authority to require districts to close the schools that fail to make gains.
Districts generally have several options for funding reforms in these schools through federal School Improvement Grant and Race to the Top Innovation Funding programs. But New York City has fewer.
Because the city and the teachers union have yet to agree on a teacher evaluation plan, state officials said the city is only eligible to receive funding to implement the most stringent of interventions: school closure over a four-year period, through a process known as phase-out, or school “turnaround.” But turnaround is for now off the table because the city lost a lawsuit over its plans to use the turnaround model in 24 schools earlier this summer. It is appealing the decision, but is not likely to see a resolution soon.
SED spokesman Dennis Tompkins said the city would be eligible to receive funds for priority schools it decides to close in the coming school year, and that officials expect the city to propose closure for some of the schools on the list this fall.
Before priority schools, there were Schools in Need of Improvement (SINI), a list of hundreds of schools that the state required to devise improvement plans under NCLB guidelines. The list grew every year, and schools put on the list never came off it.
The new waiver guidelines mean that far fewer schools will have an improvement status compared to previous years. But the interventions for these schools will be more aggressive and more extensive. Ira Schwartz, SED’s assistant commissioner for accountability, told reporters that the new lists hold schools to higher standards than the SINI list did, but at the same time makes the list of schools under pressure more manageable.
“We appplied college and career standards to create these lists. We were testing against higher standards and [we] incorporated growth similar to what we’re doing with teacher and principal evaluations,” he said. “We think this list is more right-sized.”
School districts will also be able to redirect some funds that were once used to fund after school tutoring to new initiatives in the priority schools. The school improvement plans must include an extended learning day and a small increase in parent engagement program spending.
Schwartz said there is a chance some schools could be removed from the priority list if they post significant improvements in the coming year. But once a school begins implementing a reform program, it must stick through it for three years and be accountable for the end results, even if it shows improvements in the short term.
More than a dozen of the city schools that the state identified for intensive improvement, including Christopher Columbus High School and Jamaica High School, won’t have a chance to try. That’s because the city has already began phasing them out as part of a four-year closure plan.
The other priority schools on the list that will be closed within the next four years are: Norman Thomas High School, Washington Irving Academy, John F. Kennedy, Monroe Academy for Business/Law, Metropolitan Corporate Academy, Paul Robeson, Beach Channel, Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education, Jane Addams, and Grace Dodge Career and Technical Education.
The state’s list features all 24 of the former “turnaround” schools the city unsuccessfully moved to close this year, and a handful of schools that opened under the Bloomberg administration—some as recently as 2006 and 2008. The list also has one city charter school: Williamsburg Charter High School.
In addition to the priority school list, the state named 70 school districts, including New York City, as “focus districts,” because their ethnic minority students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners have performed particularly poorly on the state’s reading and math exams, and have graduation rates far below average. From there, New York City selected more than 200 schools as focus schools, where it must now develop school improvement plans that target the populations of students that are most in need of help.
Many of the priority schools are high schools, but most of the schools that the city picked as focus schools are elementary and middle schools. Two charter schools, Opportunity Charter School and St. Hope Academy Charter School made the focus list.
New York City schools also made up a good portion of the state’s list for top-performing schools, called “Reward and Recognition Schools.” Of the 250 schools on this list, 55 were from New York City. These are schools that have either made the most progress on student achievement and do not have significant achievement gaps.
As part of the recognition, the schools will be rewarded between $150,000 and $300,000 to expand their models of success into more schools or more grades. The state education department said it plans to release yet another list this fall, called “Recognition Schools” that meet most, but not all of the criteria.
Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said the new lists might motivate the city to close more schools, but the focus list is likely to encourage officials to create improvement plans in schools that have never had ones before.
“They’re already saying they want to close more schools, but they’ve never had a plan for how to help a struggling school,” he said in an interview. “If your crowning achievement is closing more schools than ever before before you leave [office,] that’s the single biggest piece of evidence that [Mayor Michael Bloomberg] is doing a bad job.”
David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership at the City University of New York, said the new lists do not seem to represent a significant departure from the NCLB criteria, which determines whether schools are in good standing or not based on similar categories, such as the performance of high needs students. But he said it’s possible they could still motivate political decisions in the city this year.
“Here is a newly prominent sign that there are still so many failing schools in New York City, he said. “The SINI list became like wallpaper and nobody noticed it. This may encourage the Mayor to close more schools, but it also highlights the number of schools that are still low performing.”