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.

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”