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.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”