In defense of DOE school closings

On February 11, I will begin my 39th year with the New York City public schools. I started as a teacher, and have served as an assistant principal, principal, deputy superintendent, and district superintendent. I am currently the Chief Schools Officer, a position in which I support and evaluate the 1,600 schools overseen by the Department of Education. Over these four decades, I have watched schools rise to greatness and great schools fall. That’s the cycle of a school system as we work to ensure that our classrooms are fulfilling their most basic obligation to educate children and put them on the path to graduation. Closing schools is a difficult, but necessary, part of this cycle.

During the past six years, the Department of Education has closed more than 90 schools that were incapable of reversing years of low performance. This year, we’ve proposed phasing out another 20 schools where turnaround efforts have failed to improve student achievement. We don’t take these decisions lightly. In some cases, these schools have storied histories and large numbers of faithful alumni. All have students and staffs who work hard and still believe in the school’s potential. But despite past successes and recent efforts, these schools all share something in common — they are failing to educate most of their students.

We consider many factors when determining whether to phase out a school. We study its performance trends over time. Some of the schools proposed for closure this year have been struggling for more than a decade, showing little if any progress despite an array of interventions. These may range from creating an assortment of enrichment programs, mentoring and tutoring services, reconfiguring grades and classes, lowering enrollment, or changing principals.

As a result, any school that earned a “D” or “F” grade on its most recent progress report, or earned a “C” grade for three consecutive years, was automatically considered as a candidate for closure or other consequences, such as leadership change.

We also looked closely at school Quality Reviews — evaluations of a school’s culture and teaching practices conducted by experienced educators. And finally, we weighed community satisfaction with each school, as indicated on annual survey results from parents, students, and teachers. And we considered demand for seats at each school to assess whether or not city families felt it was a good option for their children. When schools are not working for their students, they and their parents vote with their feet, and most of the schools proposed for closure have experienced low and declining demand.

By all of these measures, the evidence supporting each of our school closure proposals is compelling.

In Brooklyn, we propose to close five schools. Among them are Paul Robeson High School, W.H. Maxwell Career and Technical High School, and PS 332 Charles H. Houston. A few facts about these schools:

• In 2009, Robeson graduated just 40 percent of its students. On the 2009 School Survey, only 64 percent of students said they felt safe at school. The attendance rate is 69 percent — among the lowest in the city — and enrollment has been shrinking each year for the past several years.

• Maxwell had a graduation rate of 43 percent. Just 20 percent of students received a Regents Diploma, which will be the standard for graduation in two years. Attendance and student safety are also major concerns at the school. Only 62 percent of students responded that they feel safe at school on the annual survey.

• PS 332 is a K-8 school that received a “C” on its 2009 Progress Report for a third consecutive year. English and math scores lag behind both the district and citywide averages — just half of students are proficient readers.

Let’s be clear about what closure means. These schools don’t simply turn off the lights and padlock their doors; they are phased out over a number of years so that every student enrolled has an opportunity to graduate. Our track record even shows that student outcomes tend to improve at phase-out schools with each passing year. We have replaced the schools we have closed with 335 new schools (not including charter schools) that have demonstrated remarkable success in helping students excel. For example, our new high schools have achieved an average four-year graduation rate of 75 percent — well above the citywide rate of 61 percent —even though new schools serve some of the city’s highest-need students. The schools they replaced graduated as few as three of 10 children.

We know there are dedicated and caring people working tremendously hard every day to support students in these schools, but we cannot keep doing the same things and expect different results. The standard must be that every school is one to which we would all want to send our own children, and urge others to do the same.

Eric Nadelstern is the Chief Schools Officer of the New York City Department of Education.

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