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3 reporters, 3 high schools, 3,000 students, one school year

More than 30 schools across the city are about to embark on an experiment to rapidly boost student performance. In a plan endorsed by President Barack Obama, the city will use millions of federal dollars to either resuscitate the schools, or shut them down and open new ones.

This year, we’ll be following three of these schools.

A Brooklyn high school sees almost half its freshmen drop out before their senior year and struggles with safety, but staff hope that new leadership will revive the school. Another in SoHo draws students from all over the city and has a graduation rate of just 50 percent, but both teachers and students are optimistic that a longer school day and more training for teachers can forge a better future. At a third high school in the Bronx, the staff is fighting to keep the school open despite threats from Mayor Bloomberg, who urged parents not to send their children there.

Those students who showed up this year anyway “will get a terrible education that…they’ll probably never recover from,” Bloomberg told reporters.

Together, the three high schools serve over 3,000 of the city’s neediest students. They are part of a group of schools targeted by both the mayor, who calls them “failing,” and President Obama, who calls the worst among them “dropout factories.” Both men describe the schools’ resuscitation as crucial to solving poverty and improving the economy. But how should the schools get fixed? And what role should Obama’s team in Washington, D.C., play?

In this project, a collaboration of GothamSchools and WNYC that launches formally on Monday, we will follow three efforts to change three struggling schools. The different approaches reflect both en vogue school reforms and the tricky politics that determine (and sometimes distort) how they are implemented. While two schools are receiving multi-million dollar grants from the Obama administration, another’s budget has been slashed by over a million dollars as the teachers union and the mayor fight over whether it should exist at all.

The Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School in SoHo is placing its bets on a 10-hour school day, four days a week, that includes more time for teachers to plan their lessons and an extra period of class-time for students. Brooklyn’s William E. Grady High Career and Technical Education High School is planning a similar extended day experiment, but first, its new principal says she wants to instill a stronger school culture. Chelsea and Grady are two of the city’s 11 “transformation” schools, which will receive millions of dollars over the next three years for experiments in scheduling and teacher professional development. There are 23 others that will be chosen for similar or more radical interventions, such as a total phase-out, or a “turnaround” strategy in which half their teachers are replaced.

Almost half of the transformation schools, including both Chelsea and Grady, are career and technical education schools. At these schools, students must fulfill the same academic requirements as students at any other city high school. But they can also earn specialized certificates along with their diplomas that allow them to go directly into jobs like construction or information technology.

Meanwhile, Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx — the school whose survival the mayor challenges — is fighting to remain open as a smaller school with a focus on high-needs students. The city will also receive millions of dollars to fix Columbus, but Bloomberg wants to use that money to shut the school down and open a new one. As the school fights to stay open, it is focusing on helping the students who are there now.

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