study says...

Bloomberg’s early school closures benefitted future students, new study finds

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of closing bottom-ranked high schools did not harm students at the shuttered schools and benefitted later students who were forced to enroll elsewhere, according to a new study.

The study, which looked at 29 high schools whose closures began during the first half of Bloomberg’s tenure, is sure to rekindle debates over one of the most divisive education policies in the city’s history. It found that students who would have attended the shuttered schools landed at higher-performing schools — in many cases, new small schools that the city created in droves during that 2002 to 2008 period — and ended up with better academic outcomes.

“They were prevented from attending the low-performing schools that were their most likely choice,” said the report’s author, James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a nonpartisan center based at New York University. He said the evidence suggests school closure “may be beneficial, but only if you think about it in the context of providing better options for students and opening up a choice process.”

The new study did not examine how the years-long closure process affected educators, local communities that lost historic institutions, or surrounding schools that absorbed many challenging students. Over the years, the strategy became increasingly unpopular among parents and educators, eventually prompting lawsuits, rancorous public hearings, and scathing criticism by the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, who has largely rejected that approach.

Despite the backlash, high school graduation rates improved under Bloomberg, and this latest study suggests that individual students fared better as a result of the school closures. Former Bloomberg officials seized on the report as another vindication of their approach, while opponents such as the city teachers union downplayed the findings.

Kemple said the closings may have been a “necessary triage” when many large high schools were in a dismal condition. But now that so many of those schools have been replaced, he and other researchers said closure may be less appropriate and less effective as an engine of system-wide change.

“Closing schools is something you only want to do when you’re declaring a state of emergency,” said Leslie Santee Siskin, a research professor at NYU who has studied efforts to reform the city’s high schools but was not involved in the new report. Each closure triggers disruptions that should not be dismissed just because they can be hard to quantify, she added.

“There are costs that don’t get measured in tracking academic performance,” she said.

The city’s four-year graduation rate was 51 percent when Bloomberg took office in 2002, according to the city’s traditional calculations, with many high schools considered unsafe and dysfunctional. His response was to “phase out” 157 schools during his three terms as mayor and create hundreds of replacements, including more than 200 new high schools. (Previous studies have found that certain small high schools outperform other schools, but this study was the first to examine the effects of the city’s school closures themselves.)

High schools closed during the first half of the Bloomberg administration include:

  • 2003-04: John Jay High School
  • 2004-05: South Bronx High School
  • 2005-06: Martin Luther King High School, Morris High School, High School of Redirection
  • 2006-07: Seward Park High School, Park West High School, Manhattan Institute for Academic & Visual Arts, William H. Taft High School, Theodore Roosevelt High School, Prospect Heights High School, Campus Academy for Science and Math, George W. Wingate High School, Bushwick High School
  • 2007-08: Harry Van Arsdale High School, Erasmus Campus – Humanities, Erasmus Campus – Business/Technology, Thomas Jefferson High School, Springfield Gardens High School
  • 2008-09: Walton High School, Evander Childs High School, Comprehensive Night High School of Brooklyn

The targeted schools were among the worst in the city on several measures, yet other schools with similar records evaded closure, the report found. The shuttered schools served a percentage of poor students and ones with special needs comparable to the city average, but a far higher share of students who had struggled in middle school.

The closure process, which was fiercely resisted by the teachers union and many community groups, was widely considered demoralizing for educators and destabilizing for some students. It slowly drained the schools of students and funding, causing advanced courses and enrichment programs to vanish, as new schools took their place.

Yet the report found that the process did not have a statistically significant impact — either positive or negative — on the academic performance or attendance of students who remained at the schools during their multi-year phaseouts. It did prompt a disproportionate number of students to transfer to different schools, but not to drop out of school entirely.

Those students who switched to different schools did worse academically than students who stayed at the closing schools, the report found. That finding confirms the fear of many teachers that students who fled closing schools stumbled in their new surroundings, and those who failed to graduate before their schools closed faced uncertain futures.

“There’s a whole bunch of kids who fell through the cracks,” said Stefanie Siegel, a former teacher at Paul Robeson High School, which closed in 2014 and was not one of the schools analyzed in the report.

After the closure of the 29 high schools featured in the report, incoming freshmen found a variety of other options.

On average, the students who would have attended each shuttered school fanned out to 82 different schools, though nearly 45 percent enrolled in schools in the same buildings as those that closed, the study found. The schools where they landed tended to be smaller than the closed schools, with higher graduation rates and students who had performed better in middle school.

At those schools, the students’ attendance and graduation rates were higher than their peers’ had been at the schools that closed. However, the report points out that their outcomes still were not great: even in those different schools, only 56 percent of the students graduated within four years.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew highlighted that part of the report, as well as its finding that some low-performing schools that dodged closure during that period managed to improve. For those reasons, he said in a statement Wednesday, the “report shows that closing schools is no route to real progress for our students.”

But two of Bloomberg’s former school chiefs released their own statement saying that the latest study added to a “a steady drumbeat of research” that shows his strategy of closing troubled schools and opening small ones worked.

“Today’s study from NYU shows thousands of students graduated who otherwise would not have because the Mayor chose to focus on what was right for kids,” Joel Klein and Dennis Walcott said.

De Blasio has disparaged that approach, saying Bloomberg opted to condemn schools rather than fix them, treating closure as a “panacea.” In a major reversal, he has stopped targeting low-performing schools for closure, and instead selected 94 of them to receive nearly $400 million in assistance over three years through his “Renewal” turnaround program.

Still, he has been reluctant to completely abandon closure, which Bloomberg’s allies and some state officials have argued is a crucial tool for accountability. So he has insisted that he will consider shuttering schools that flounder despite the city’s help.

“As the Mayor and Chancellor have made clear, we must give schools aggressive supports to turnaround, including an extended school day, community school services, targeted teacher training and curriculum overhauls,” said education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye, “but we will also not hesitate to close schools that have the opportunity to improve and do not.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

Q and A

Former Success Academy lawyer hoping to start own charter network wants to ‘take it to the next level’

As the former top lawyer for Success Academy, Emily Kim had a hand in almost every aspect of New York City’s largest and most controversial charter-school network — from negotiating lunch times for schools in shared buildings to defending Success in court.

After spending six years with Success, Kim is setting off to launch her own charter network with locations in Manhattan’s District 6, which includes Inwood and Washington Heights, and the Bronx’s District 12, which includes the south and central Bronx. Called Zeta Charter Schools, she hopes to open in 2018.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Emily Kim
Emily Kim

Kim is still a big believer in Success — two of her children go there, and she praised its lightening-rod leader, Eva Moskowitz, as “brilliant” — but she thinks she has something different to offer.

“I chose the best schools possible for my own children,” she said during a recent interview with Chalkbeat near her home on the Upper West Side, “but I’m still going to innovate and take it to the next level.”

The school’s co-founders — Jessica Stein and Meghan Mackay — also have ties to Success, as do several board members listed in the school’s charter application. (One of the board members, Jenny Sedlis, is a Success co-founder and director of the pro-charter advocacy group, StudentsFirstNY.)

But Kim’s vision also seems tailored to avoid some of the usual critiques of charter schools, including that they rely on harsh discipline policies. By contrast, her plan for Zeta calls for limiting the use of suspensions. She also wants her schools to be diverse, though she admits that will be difficult in residentially segregated areas like the Bronx.

A mother of three, Kim has taught in classrooms in New York City, Long Island and even West Africa. She worked on special education issues in Philadelphia district schools before heading to law school at Temple and Columbia. While working as a corporate litigator, she took on a case pro-bono for Success — and was soon offered a job as the network’s first general counsel.

Below are edited highlights from our interview with Kim earlier this month where she described how her experience as an Asian-American growing up in Iowa shaped her views on school segregation, why she believes high-stakes tests are important, and what role she sees for charter schools like hers.

Kim talked about sending her son to Success:

My child was 4 years old when all of this kind of unfolded. The first school I visited was Eva’s school, Harlem 4.

… I was so astounded by what I saw — which is the energy of the teachers. Just the level of dedication, commitment, the joy and energy of their teachers — I was blown away.

Then Eva gave a talk at the end. She was clearly a hard-driving, almost in a sense, from my perspective then, a business person. So I thought, “That’s the type of person who should be running schools.”

What’s your role going to be as you launch your own charter schools?

I’ll be the CEO. I want to take all of the great things that I saw at Success and at other schools and — like in any other enterprise — I want to take the best of the best, and I want to implement it.

And then I want to work on implementing some of the ideas that I have as well.

What’s your goal for your schools?

The number one goal is to just create additional education opportunities. As a parent, I feel this very strongly: No parent should have to send their child to a school that is not a good school.

… Our schools are going to prepare kids for the tests, and the reason is that tests are access to power. And whether you like it or not, if you want to go to college — to a good college — if you want to go to law school like I did, you take the SATs. You take the LSAT. You have to do a good job.

How are you going to measure your schools’ success?

Academic outcomes are first and foremost because truly, if I can’t hit the academic outcomes, there’s no point. I’m wasting everybody’s time and I don’t want to do that. That’s number one.

… We’re looking at going backward from very rigorous high school and college curricula, and working backwards from there. So that’s our vision when we’re establishing our schools. What do kids need to be successful in college?

And it’s not just the testing outcomes, but it’s also the soft skills that kids need in order to get there. Kids need to be able to self-regulate, and that’s got to start in elementary school, in order to be successful in middle school.

On what her schools will look like:

One of the most important elements of our school design is going to be technology.

We’re still in early days, but I’m visiting many schools across the nation that are doing things that are very exciting in technology. I’m also going to be looking in the private sector to understand what are the skills that kids need to actually be innovators. I’d love if one of our students were able to invent an app that made a difference in the world.

Many New York City schools, district and charter alike, are highly segregated by race and class. Kim spoke about the city’s segregation:

In New York City, with the exception of Success Academy and other high-performing schools, you can go to the playground and look at the skin of the children who are playing there or look around the neighborhood and the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, and you’ll know the quality of the school. It’s a terrible, terrible situation. And that’s 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

And how her own background informs her views on the issue:

I grew up in Iowa. I was one of the very few students who looked like me. My dad was a math professor. There were very few African Americans, few Hispanics, and very few Asians. That was hard in a lot of ways in that I grew up with a lot of teasing and whatnot. But I also was forced to navigate a world that I didn’t understand from my own experience.

… I have the perspective that it shouldn’t [just] be the case that minorities are integrating into the larger majority population. The majority population also has to integrate themselves in the minority enclaves. As long as we have this idea that it has to go one way only, that’s perpetuating the problem.

Have the city’s charter schools done enough when it comes to integration?

… It’s just so challenging for charters because honestly, opponents of charters use the segregation idea as another weapon against charters in terms of why they’re not serving the greater good — because they’re segregated.

Well, they’re segregated because they went into areas that were low income. Unfortunately, those kids weren’t getting a good education.

So what should the mission of charter schools be?

Charter schools were largely, originally intended to bring options to children who didn’t have them — so that would be low-income [students]. That’s not really my vision of charter schools. I think that charter schools are places where innovation can happen.

… I would love for what we learn through our [research-and-development] approach to be implemented at district schools. I’m very interested in district reform. I think there are a lot of challenges to district reform, but we’d love to come up with solutions that can be applied in other contexts.

Kim explained her decision to leave Success and start her own schools:

Staying with Success surely would have been a very rich experience, but I also thought I wanted to build something and I had some ideas.

… It was a really hard decision. But I’m really glad I did and every day I’ve made that decision, I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

I guess it will be answered once I have the schools up and running. If they’re doing well, then I’ll have my answer.

approaching deadline

In year three of New York City’s massive school turnaround program, the big question is: What’s next?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks with East Flatbush Community Research School Principal Daveida Daniel during a visit of the Renewal middle school.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña walked into a classroom at Longwood Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, where students were absorbed with gleaming iMacs and recording equipment.

She paused for a moment, watching the teacher shuttle between students experimenting with audio-editing software.

“Look at the attention these kids are getting,” Fariña said, praising the school’s new vocational program in digital media. “It’s a feeling of renewed vigor and energy.”

With the smell of fresh paint still hanging in the air, Fariña’s visit was meant to highlight the enormous investments the city has made in dozens of schools that have floundered for years — including this one.

Under its former name, Banana Kelly, the school suffered from one of the highest dropout rates in the city, churned through four principals in five years, and struggled with serious safety incidents. (A previous principal was doused with pepper spray, and in 2012 was shot with a BB pellet outside the building.)

Now — as one of several back-to-school check-ins at some of the 78 schools the city is currently trying to revamp — Fariña was eager to praise the school’s energetic principal and its recent gains. Its attendance and graduation rates have improved in recent years, though its 2016 graduation rate (which is the latest figure publicly available) still lagged behind schools with similar student populations.

The visit comes as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s three-year effort to revive long-struggling schools, including the former Banana Kelly, is rapidly approaching its third birthday this November. The “Renewal” program — which has cost at least $383 million so far — is arguably the mayor’s most ambitious education reform, an effort to nurse some of the city’s lowest-performing schools back to health with extra social services and academic support rather than shut them down.

And while some experts say it’s too soon to expect big payoffs, de Blasio’s three-year timeline for “fast and intense improvement” has invited scrutiny into whether the program is translating into better outcomes for students.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña tours Longwood Prep with Principal Asya Johnson (right) and student Heaven Molina.

“Enough time has elapsed that there is an appetite for looking at results,” said Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College professor who has studied the program.

Meanwhile, the exit strategy for schools in the Renewal program remains unclear. Despite promises that schools released from the program won’t lose the extra support they’ve come to rely upon, some school personnel are nervous that extra funding, counselors, and social services could be scaled back.

“There are some principals whose reaction is: ‘We really need to get it together because next year these [partner organization] resources might not be here,’” said Derek Anello, a program director with the nonprofit Partnership with Children who oversees staff in four Renewal schools. “Lots of people are experiencing it as the last of the three years.”

Planning for life after Renewal

Felicia Guerrier has helped usher in a new wave of social services at  P.S. 298 Dr. Betty Shabazz in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a Renewal school where 96 percent of students come from low-income families, and which used to suffer from “a love drought and a resource drought,” as she recently put it.

She supervises two new full-time social workers, oversees vision and dental services now offered out of the school’s auditorium, and coordinates with a nursing service that helps keep student health issues like asthma and diabetes in check — resources she says have led to a big boost in attendance and family involvement at the school.

But she’s already started handing off some of her responsibilities, out of a concern that the nonprofit she works for, Partnership with Children, might eventually be forced to reduce its role at the school. (Some nonprofits in Renewal schools are unsure whether their contracts will be extended past this school year.)

Guerrier explained that she’s now taking a back seat in meetings, making sure the assistant principal is in the loop to coordinate with health providers, and positioning the school’s parent coordinator to help run a food pantry for students and their families.

“I’m feeling the pressure to make sure there is some type of lasting power with what’s happening even when I’m gone,” she said.

While the mayor vowed in 2014 that the original cohort of 94 Renewal schools would be revamped or shuttered within three years (16 schools have already been closed or folded into other schools), the city has indicated the program will continue beyond this year. And officials stressed that the work of nonprofit organizations like Partnership with Children won’t end even if schools are taken out of the program.

“Steady improvement is key, and of course we will evaluate each school that is ready to transition from the program and provide them with the right supports to maintain their improvement,” Aimee Horowitz, the executive superintendent for Renewal schools, said in a statement.

An unclear exit strategy

Even as the Renewal schools move forward with their reforms, a big question hangs over them: How exactly do they exit the program? So far, no schools have left it without being combined with another school or closed.

This August, Mayor de Blasio said that would change. In addition to more closures, he said some schools could graduate out of the program, and others might stay past the three-year deadline.

“We have to work out the details,” de Blasio said, “but we’re not going to leave a school in the lurch.”

In making decisions about which schools to shutter or merge in the past, the city has looked at test scores, enrollment changes, principal effectiveness, and attendance rates — though officials have said there aren’t strict cutoffs, making it difficult to predict which schools could depart the program this fall.

If schools are released from Renewal, it remains to be seen whether they’ll continue to enjoy the same level of support and extra resources.

Brian Bradley, principal of Renaissance School of the Arts in East Harlem, said he is preparing for the possibility that this will be his school’s last year in the program. Renewal, he said, has made a real difference: Additional training for teachers has improved classroom instruction, aggressive outreach is boosting attendance, and the community school director has taken over once-overlooked administrative responsibilities.

“We have a great partnership and that has been the number one thing,” he said.

The school only banked on three years of support, but Bradley noted he has come to rely on extra funding the school receives to lengthen the school day. It’s a feature of the Renewal program that has a dual payoff, he said: more time for student learning and a pay bump that helps reduce teacher turnover.

While he’s already looking for sponsorships or other ways to fund his new programs, he’s aware that his school might have improved its way out of extra money and help.

“I have definitely used the phrase ‘victim of our own success,’” he said, “and that could be the reality.”

Looking for results

The program’s three-year anniversary doesn’t just create uncertainty for Renewal schools, it also raises questions about whether de Blasio’s signature turnaround program is working.

Some advocates of the mayor’s strategy have expressed concerns that his promise of rapid improvement was too aggressive. They say school turnarounds usually require well over three years, especially when they hinge on cultivating partnerships with social service organizations — a new task for many school leaders.

City officials have pointed to better attendance, test scores and graduation rates in some schools, but many others have not yet made significant academic gains. And researchers who have tried to sort out whether the program has led to academic improvements have reached mixed conclusions.

Using three years of test score data (including the results released last month), the Manhattan Institute’s Marcus Winters found that the program is generally boosting math and English scores in elementary and middle schools.

But using a different statistical method that compares Renewal schools to similar ones that didn’t receive extra resources, Teachers College’s Pallas found the program appeared to have no effect on test scores or graduation rates. (He has not yet updated his analysis to include the latest test scores.)

Renewal schools remain under pressure to raise their scores. To aid in that process, education staffers who work with the schools have pushed them to target increasingly specific groups of underperforming students, according to Partnership with Children’s Derek Anello.

“In the prior two years we were more general in what the goals were,” Anello said. Now, “There’s really a microscope on every number and how we move the needle.”

Yet even if schools don’t make huge strides this year, some observers say the mayor is unlikely to change course. Many argue that adding social services to high-need schools enhances students’ health and wellness, even if it doesn’t result in swift academic improvements. The city has invested heavily in creating social service-rich “community schools,” which include more than 130 schools outside the Renewal program.

Even if Renewal’s academic results are mixed, Professor Pallas of Teachers College predicts that de Blasio won’t face strong political pressure to scale back his resource-intensive approach to school improvement, which has generally earned support from local politicians and the teachers union.

The program “resonates with progressives’ desire to support community-based schools,” he said. But, he added, “at some point somebody’s got to make the difficult decision about whether the benefits are worth the investments they’re making.”