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Saved from “turnaround,” Grady faces new threats to existence

In a normal year, William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School would be preparing to enroll a ninth-grade class of about 350 students. But this hasn’t been a normal year.

The high school directory distributed to eighth-graders in September listed the school as having a “D” on its city progress report, even though Grady’s 2010 grade would be updated to a B in October. In December, the school’s federal funding was cut off after the city and teachers union failed to agree on new teacher evaluations. The next month, Mayor Bloomberg surprised school staff by announcing that Grady would be one of 33 schools to close and reopen under an overhaul program known as “turnaround.”

Then, in April, after months of raucous protests and appeals to the state’s top education leaders, Grady was yanked from the turnaround list, along with six other schools that had top grades on their city progress reports. The school would open this fall as usual.

Except that it won’t. Grady has just 150 students on its ninth-grade roster for the fall, and fewer students means fewer dollars to spend — in Grady’s case, about $3.5 million. Officials at Grady are planning to cut teachers loose, cancel after-school programs, and dismantle some of the supports that Principal Geraldine Maione said helped the school improve enough to stay open.

No longer will there be after-school clubs in robotics and chess, and teachers won’t be able to be paid to work an extended-day program for students who want to take additional courses in music and dance. With a career and technical education focus, Grady has never been able to offer a full complement of arts courses, so the clubs offered students a rare chance for a rounded education, Maione said.

Those programs were funded with millions of dollars in federal funds that the school received in 2010 and 2011 to support “transformation,” a less aggressive federally prescribed overhaul process. The funds, which were supposed to continue through next year, were essential to lifting the school’s performance statistics, Maione said. The four-year graduation rate has hovered around 50 percent in recent years, but in Maione’s first year at the school, the school earned heaps of extra credit from the city as more students made faster progress.

After early uncertainly, Department of Education officials now say they intend to replace transformation funds for the nine schools that had been receiving them and are no longer set for turnaround. But schools haven’t seen their budgets for next year, so Maione said she isn’t counting on the extra funds yet. And the $1.4 million in transformation funds would not come close to making up for the enrollment drop. Two hundred students would bring about $3.5 million to the school.

“We still haven’t heard anything about the funding, but for me it doesn’t matter,” Maione said last week. “Half of my staff is going to be gone. I can’t start anything new.”

It’s an issue that many of the schools wrapped up in the turnaround saga are anticipating. Indeed, enrollment is down at 40 percent of the 17 schools set to undergo turnaround this summer, according to the Department of Education. (An equal number are set to see enrollment rise.) Officials declined to provide details about the size of the enrollment changes or about enrollment at schools such as Grady that are no longer set to undergo turnaround.

For many of the schools, enrollment has been slipping for years. But it can’t have helped that the mayor himself identified them as struggling in January and held a series of high-profile public hearings and even raucous demonstrations — even as eighth-graders were finalizing and refining their high school applications.

Declining enrollment costs schools hard dollars — and it also keeps them on the city’s closure radar. The Department of Education frequently cites student demand as a key consideration when deciding which schools to shutter and replace.

But the alternative to losing students isn’t always appealing, either. Students who are new to the city, transferring, or returning from incarceration or drop-out get assigned to whatever high schools have open seats. Several schools that have landed on the chopping block have argued — unsuccessfully — that large numbers of the needy “over-the-counter” students have doomed them to poor performance.

For Grady, there have been a few bright spots. The school’s “Quality Review,” which had been cancelled when Grady first landed on the turnaround roster, was rescheduled — for the first two days back from the Memorial Day break, at a time when high schools have already turned from regular instruction to prep for this month’s Regents exams. Maione was able to convince department officials to jettison the middle school administrator set to review the school in favor of someone with high school experience, then to shift the date to the fall.

But for the most part, school officials are hunkering down for a rough landing this fall. Maione is spending the waning days of the school year helping junior teachers land interviews at other schools. Her top assistants are concerned about the toll the fight for survival has taken on her and fear that she won’t return in the fall, even though she has promised to.

“My greatest worry is the principal,” said Spencer Holder, an assistant principal who said the school had become a more collaborative and student-oriented place to work since Maione’s 2010 arrival.

He added, “She’s been doing turnaround without turnaround. … But she has planted the type of seeds where we will be able to sustain what she put under her tutelage.”