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De Blasio must end ‘crisis’ in Bronx school district, report says

Michelle Reyes recalls that when her oldest daughter attended school in the South Bronx’s District 9 in the early 90s, many of her classmates learned little and dropped out.

Two decades later, when her youngest daughter was a district student, Reyes saw much of the same — many floundering schools and struggling students.

By some measures, such as graduation and dropout rates, District 9 has advanced with the rest of the city since Mayor Bloomberg took office. But the district remains stubbornly among the city’s very lowest performers, and a new report by a parent-led advocacy group and a think tank argues that the next administration must aggressively attack the district’s long-term problems.

The report, released Friday by the New Settlement Parent Action Committee and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, suggests several ways the de Blasio administration could do that, beginning by creating a district-level improvement plan with input gathered at public forums.

“It’s like we’re in a sinkhole and we’re going lower and lower,” said Reyes, a member of the Parent Action Committee, or PAC. “It needs to stop.”

The report, titled “Persistent Educational Failure: The Crisis in School District 9 and a Community Roadmap for Mayor Bill de Blasio,” culled test scores and other data to highlight some of District 9’s longstanding woes.

The district, which includes Claremont, Highbridge, Mount Eden, and neighborhoods along the Grand Concourse, has a greater share of low-income students and English language learners than the school system as a whole.

While the state tests have changed since 2002, District 9 fourth and eighth-grade students have consistently scored lower on average than students citywide, the report says — in some years, by nearly 20 percentage points.

In 2013, while more than a quarter of city students passed the tougher state English tests and almost a third passed math, only 12 percent of District 9 students passed English and 14.5 percent passed math, according to the city. (The report’s slightly lower test score figures exclude data from the district’s charter schools.)

Despite the district’s dire state, the Department of Education has not paid it special attention nor staged a district-wide intervention, the report argues.

In fact, it says, the district has a smaller share of teachers with more than three years experience or ones with advanced degrees than the citywide average. And when PAC obtained a copy of the city’s improvement plan for District 9 a couple years ago, it contained outdated numbers and unspecific jargon, organizers said. (Beginning in 2012, the city stopped creating individual district plans and started using a single improvement plan for any schools the state identified as struggling, the report says.)

In response to the report, Department of Education Spokesman Devon Puglia noted that graduation and college-readiness rates are up and dropout rates are down citywide.

“That progress includes District 9, where we’ve made great strides — including a 65 percent increase in the graduation rate since 2005 — because the reforms we’ve enacted have worked,” Puglia said in a statement. “But as always, we have more work to do.”

The report claims that a signature Bloomberg-era policy — replacing low-performing schools with new ones — produced mixed results in the district.

For example, the city closed a large District 9 high school, William H. Taft, and replaced it with eight new schools. While the old school had a graduation rate just over 23 percent, three of the new schools had rates of nearly 51 percent in 2012, according to the city.

But, the report notes, two of the campus’s new schools are being closed and three are on the state’s struggling schools list. Overall, 12 of the 30 District 9 schools on that list were opened under Bloomberg, the report says.

The district’s high levels of poverty and unemployment, among other challenges, would complicate any administration’s school-reform efforts — but the report argues that the district’s schools so far have not been equipped to meet those challenges.

“There are kids [in the district] who don’t know if they’re going to eat at night or where they’re going to sleep,” said PAC member Lynn Sanchez. “They’re going to school with these issues — and the schools don’t know how to deal with them.”

Some of the report’s other recommendations for the de Blasio administration include a new-teacher mentoring system, more school arts funding, a program to train parents how to help their children with schoolwork, and school staffers who speak languages common among the district’s many immigrant families, including those from West Africa.

The report offers some proposals — such as more social services at schools, extra learning time for middle schools, and more preschool slots — that de Blasio has already promised, but it urges him to launch those programs in the neediest districts, such as District 9.

PAC, which parents formed in 1996, has held marches, petition drives and community forums in recent years as it pushes the city to overhaul the struggling district.

Angel Martinez, who has children in three District 9 schools, said another parent told her about PAC while their children played outside P.S. 64 earlier this year. Dismayed by her child’s lack of homework and the closing school’s lack of communication with parents, Martinez decided to join, she said.

Though the family recent moved to Harlem, Martinez decided to keep her children in their Bronx schools, she said, partly because she wants to help make them better.

“There’s a great force in the parents,” she said. “And if the schools would invest in that, we could be a great movement for them.”

Persistent Educational Failure