A Case of Collateral Damage
As small schools proliferated, large school enrollments rose. The most fragile schools fractured.
For many years, Jane Addams High School in the South Bronx was a popular vocational school that trained students for careers in nursing, cosmetology, tourism and business. Its graduation rate was well above the citywide average, and its very top students were admitted to selective colleges such as New York and Cornell universities. It was a pleasant, orderly school with a mostly female student body, teachers recall.
In 2003, the school's fortunes began to change. Enrollment, which had been 1,626 in 2002, increased by more than 200 students over the next two years, including many boys who teachers say didn't apply to the school and didn't want to be there—students who weren't interested in becoming licensed as a hairdresser or a nurse assistant, or training for jobs in tourism and business or the other career options offered. The school became less orderly, teachers say. Attendance and graduation rates declined dramatically. The school's reputation faded, and over time fewer students chose to attend. The number of applications to the school's popular cosmetology program, for example, declined by 40 percent between 2002 and 2008. The Department of Education's Office of Student Enrollment continued to assign students to the school who had not listed it on their application, teachers say.
"They took a really good, functioning building and destroyed it," says Elliot Gloskin, a math teacher who recently retired as a teachers' union chapter chair at Jane Addams.
“Critics say the city neglected large high schools while focusing almost exclusively on creating small schools. ”
The experience of Jane Addams was repeated across the city as Schools Chancellor Joel Klein closed 21 large, dysfunctional high schools and created new small schools in their place. Low-performing students who would otherwise have attended these large, troubled schools were dispersed to remaining large schools, including Jane Addams. While a few schools were successful in absorbing such students, most were not. A significant proportion of the remaining large high schools have experienced sharp declines in attendance and graduation rates during the years Klein has been chancellor, according to an analysis of city Department of Education (DOE) data by the Center for New York City Affairs.
An analysis of 34 large high schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx (defined as those with more than 1,400 students in 2007-08) found that 26 saw their enrollments jump significantly as other high schools were closed. Enrollment increases ranged from 150 to more than 1,100 students. Of these 26 schools, 19 saw their attendance decline and 15 saw their graduation rates decline between the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2007. Fourteen saw both attendance and graduation rates decline.
While the DOE has trumpeted the success of the new small schools for at-risk students, the net gain for all high school students is much smaller because the majority of high schoolers still attend large schools. The combined enrollment of the small high schools opened during the Klein years was about 58,000—or about one-fifth of the city's 297,000 high school students in 2007-08. Another 167,000 students attend large high schools, and of these, 36,681 attend the 14 large high schools that underwent a surge in enrollment followed by both lower attendance and lower graduation rates. (The remaining students attend either small schools created before Klein became chancellor or midsize schools with enrollments between 600 and 1,400.) (See chart below)
The DOE has sought to break up concentrations of very low-performing students in the large dysfunctional schools by dispersing students from failing schools to schools that were at least a little stronger. Klein agrees that shifting hard-to-serve students to the remaining large schools increased the burdens on those schools. Part of the problem, he says, is the sheer number of needy, challenging students in the city.
He says the policy is part of the department's long-term effort to improve the school system by creating small schools, which, he adds, have been proven more effective for students who are most at risk of dropping out.
"My strategy is, when you have hard-to-serve kids, which are typically kids that went to most schools in the Bronx and many schools in Central Brooklyn, instead of having 3,000 kids or 2,800 kids [in a school], the strategy is to break them up," Klein explains.
"And that's what we have done. There were some growth pains. The process is not over," he adds. "But I don't think you can solve the problem when you have such large numbers of kids by basically having schools stay at 35 or 38 percent or 40 percent graduation rates."
What's more, this policy remains central to the department's future plans. "We will continue to close schools and re-open smaller schools in their stead," Klein says.
The chancellor's critics counter that the DOE neglected the large high schools while focusing almost exclusively on creating small schools.
"Everyone agreed that those [large failing] schools had to be closed and reorganized," says David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College education professor and a member of the Citywide Council on High Schools, a parent advisory board. "The problem is, they didn't plan enough for the contingencies. They actively made the [remaining] large schools worse. They created a death spiral, where the graduation rates and attendance rates go down further, violence increases, and there is even more excuse to close the schools."
Consequences of School Closings
The city has a long history of closing large comprehensive high schools and replacing them with small schools sharing a large building, beginning in 1982 when Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics opened in the former Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem. However, the pace of closures accelerated dramatically under the Bloomberg administration. Over the years, as the large schools have been phased out—that is, have stopped accepting new students—the new schools were phased in, accepting only ninth graders during their first year. Each year, more students in the old or "legacy" schools graduate, and the new schools add another grade until they serve a full complement of students from grades nine through 12.
But from the time the new schools first open, the buildings no longer accommodate as many students as they did when they were large comprehensive high schools. The new small schools have smaller class sizes—with 27 instead of 34 students—and just 108 ninth-grade students each in their first year.
Most students who might once have been assigned to the closed schools were diverted to other remaining large schools. Those schools saw steep increases in enrollment, followed by declines in attendance—a significant measure of a school's viability. Many were themselves then soon shut down by the DOE. In the Bronx, Morris, Taft, South Bronx, and Roosevelt high schools were all closed in 2001, 2002 and 2003. As a direct consequence of these closings, enrollments increased at Adlai Stevenson, Evander Childs, Walton, Dewitt Clinton and Jane Addams high schools. Then, Stevenson, Evander Childs, and Walton high schools were closed in 2005 and 2006.
A similar sequence of events took place in Brooklyn. The administration closed Prospect Heights, Wingate and Bushwick high schools in 2003. Enrollment promptly increased at Samuel Tilden, Franklin K. Lane and Canarsie high schools. These three schools, in turn, were closed in 2007 and 2008. (See "Tilden High School," page 42.)
In Manhattan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Seward Park and Park West high schools were closed in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Enrollments then increased at Norman Thomas, Murry Bergtram, Brandeis and Bayard Rustin high schools. In 2009, the DOE ordered Brandeis and Bayard Rustin closed.
Many of the students diverted to the remaining large schools had a history of poor attendance, behavior problems and low academic skills, according to interviews with teachers and principals at nine of the schools. Many required special education services or classes in English as a second language, which the new small schools did not offer in the first years they were open, so those students had to be sent to other large schools. As the large schools became even larger, discipline problems also grew, teachers say.
At the most fragile schools, the increased enrollments were the precursor to sharp declines in attendance and graduation rates. Canarsie High School in Brooklyn was already in the midst of a massive demographic shift as the neighborhood changed from mostly white to mostly immigrant and African American during the 1990s and early 2000s. The school's sharp increases in enrollment after 2003 were immediately followed by rapid declines in attendance and graduation rates. Sheepshead Bay High School, which had five principals in five years, also saw attendance and graduation rates plummet.
At Jane Addams, enrollment jumped from 1,626 in the 2002-03 school year to 1,857 in 2004-05. Average daily attendance declined from 85 percent in 2002-03, about the citywide average for high schools, to 77 percent in 2007-08.
Meanwhile, the graduation rate at Jane Addams declined from 72 percent in 2003 to 59 percent in 2007. Enrollment has since declined somewhat but remains well above the 1,318 students the building was designed to accommodate.
The school has faced a number of other challenges. Portable classrooms were placed on the school's lawn to accommodate the overflow of students. A police car was posted on the street to keep dismissal time from becoming rowdy.
The school's once-popular nursing program, like other nursing programs in the city, has had trouble attracting qualified teachers. The school has had three principals in six years. Many senior teachers have retired in recent years. Still the school has tried to adapt. For example, it added courses in barbering in an attempt to engage boys who didn't want to become hairdressers.
"Some good things are happening, but it's very hard," says Caroline Cohen, who teaches business courses at Jane Addams. Students who come in with lower levels of skills need lots of extra attention, she says. To deal with poor attendance, teachers call students at home. "They really put a lot into making the kids succeed," she says.
While the school still offers Advanced Placement courses to about 40 students, and a recent valedictorian was admitted to Harvard University, there is an increased emphasis on helping kids who might otherwise drop out of school. The school has instituted "Saturday Academy" and "vacation school" to give students who have fallen behind a chance to catch up. Students who fail a course may take an online course called "PLATO learning" in order to qualify for a passing grade. "We are in such a climate of accountability that we are focusing on the struggling students," says Principal Sharron Smalls.
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Leadership and Stability Matter
Some other large high schools managed to handle the side effects of school closings and growing numbers of new students without severe disruptions. Those with strong, stable leadership and a solid core of high-achieving students have been especially successful in coping with sharply higher enrollments. In the Bronx, for example, Lehman High School's attendance rate declined, but its graduation rate increased even as enrollment swelled. The building now houses 1,000 more students than it was designed to serve. And when enrollment boomed at Harry S. Truman High School, there was initially a steep decline in attendance and graduation rates, but the school managed to rebound. (See "Truman High School," page 46.)
Brooklyn's New Utrecht and Abraham Lincoln high schools maintained their graduation rates, even when enrollment increased. Midwood High School saw a decline in its graduation rate from 88 percent to 84 percent. All three schools have a mix of high-achieving and low-achieving students. (See "New Utrecht High School," page 44.)
Similarly, graduation rates at most of the very large zoned, neighborhood high schools in Queens and Staten Island have stayed steady or improved, even in cases in which their enrollments increased dramatically. Importantly, these high schools tend to serve more middle-class students than those in the other boroughs.
Bayside High School in Queens, for example, saw its enrollment increase from 2,974 in the 2002-03 school year to 4,072 in 2007-08. However, average daily attendance stayed at 90 percent, and the graduation rate was a steady 80 percent even as enrollment grew. Principal Judith Tarlo, who retired in 2008, burnished the school's reputation, hired strong teachers and lured new students to a school that had previously been regarded as rough, according to the website Insideschools.org.
Francis Lewis High School, which serves a mix of children of different ethnic groups in the Fresh Meadows section of Queens, saw its enrollment jump by nearly 450 students in the same period, while its graduation rate climbed from 74 percent to 84 percent and its attendance stayed steady at about 90 percent.
The large "specialized" high schools which admit students according to an exam, such as Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School, or through auditions, such as Fiorello H. LaGuardia School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, sidestepped the population shifts. These schools have had steady enrollments and maintained their high graduation and attendance rates.
Substantial Declines in Attendance and Graduation
But most of the very large schools in the three boroughs in which the new small schools are concentrated—the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn—have suffered. Three-quarters of the schools with enrollments greater than 2,000 in these boroughs saw attendance rates decline; more than half saw graduation rates decline from 2003 to 2007. While some of these schools had solid records of achievement before 2002, others struggled for years and went from bad to worse.
In some cases, the enrollment at a very large school rose sharply, then returned to its pre-2002 level, while attendance and graduation rates continued to decline—suggesting that ill effects of the initial disruption may persist after enrollments return to a more manageable state. At Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan, for example, enrollment leapt by a staggering 615 students to 3,003 between fall 2002 and 2005 in a building designed to hold about 2,000 students. "We got kids who were barely literate, kids with serious behavior issues," recalled Nick Licari, a social studies teacher and United Federation of Teachers (UFT) chapter chair at Norman Thomas. While many students still choose Norman Thomas to study accounting, marketing, tourism and related business, other kids were simply assigned to the school without showing any interest in its theme, Licari said. Hallways became so crowded that fights would break out. The number of student suspensions increased by 65 percent between 2004 and 2007, according to state school report card data.
Enrollment declined between 2005 and 2007 and is now close to what is was in fall 2002. Nonetheless, attendance and graduation rates have continued to plummet. Over the five-year period, the average daily attendance rate at Norman Thomas declined from 83 percent in 2002 (slightly below citywide average of 85 percent) to a dismal 75 percent in 2007. The graduation rate declined from 57 percent in 2002, above the city average of 51 percent for that year, to 48 percent in 2007, well below the citywide average of 60 percent that year.
Licari fears the impending closures of Bayard Rustin and Brandeis mean students who would previously have gone to those two schools will instead be assigned to Norman Thomas, increasing enrollment once again. "What are the implications for us?" he asked. "Is the system ready to support us, or are they going to ensure that this school closes?"
Even some schools with a longstanding solid record of achievement have been hard hit. Dewitt Clinton High School, best known for its Macy honors program that prepares many ambitious and hardworking students for selective colleges, has long been considered one of the top public schools in the Bronx. However, as the city closed other large schools in the borough, Dewitt Clinton's enrollment ballooned by 800 students to 4,600, about 1,000 more students than the school was designed to serve.
Those numbers include 700 English language learners (ELLs) and 350 students in special education, according to Principal Geraldine D'Ambrosio. Classes are now on double sessions, with some students coming in extra early and others leaving late to accommodate increased enrollments. The halls are so crowded that children bump one another as they walk from class to class. Metal detectors were installed in 2005 after several students were robbed. Although D'Ambrosio says there have been few safety incidents since then, students complain they must wait in line for 15 to 20 minutes to get through the metal detectors. Average daily attendance declined from 86 percent to 80 percent, and the graduation rate declined from 70 percent to 63 percent from 2002-03 to 2006-07, according to DOE statistics. The school has 1,000 more students than it was designed to serve.
City officials say they are not surprised that their policy of school closures—and of moving more students with greater challenges into the remaining large high schools—may have caused significant disruptions. They describe this as additional evidence of the need for continued, far-reaching reforms.
Eric Nadelstern, the DOE's chief schools officer and a longtime proponent of small schools, blames the administrators of large schools for failing to adapt to the influx of challenging students. "The large schools that are left had avoided serving the hardest-to-serve kids for years," says Nadelstern. "The truth is they don't know how to serve them well. I'm not surprised that those schools haven't been able to rise to the challenge."
Chancellor Klein seconds this point. "Some of those schools managed the challenges and some of them are not managing the challenges," he says. "And those that aren't we will have to reconstitute." By this, he means replace them with new small schools.
Survivors are Forced to Adapt
Short of closing them, another strategy the DOE is promoting to make large schools more effective is the creation of "small learning communities," groups of teachers who work closely together with a group of students. This can have some of the benefits of a small school—such as greater personalization—without the disruption of closing a school and starting all over.
Nonetheless, even schools that have long served a range of students of different abilities are having to adapt to surging enrollments and changing populations. John Dewey High School near Coney Island, for example, admits students according to a formula called "educational option," which is designed to ensure a mix of low-, average-, and high-performing students. Founded in 1969, Dewey received a silver medal in 2007 from U.S. News and World Report in its Best High Schools rankings.
Students have more freedom than is typical in high school: During their free periods they are allowed to mingle in the corridors, and they are encouraged to pursue their own interests through independent study. It's a noncompetitive school with no letter grades or sports teams.
Now, Principal Barry Fried says the model of education that made Dewey successful for 40 years needs to be recalibrated to accommodate the different kind of students assigned there. While Dewey still has a mix of different races and family incomes among its students, it attracts fewer high-achieving students than it once did. Many of the students who now enroll have complicated family histories and are poorly prepared for high school. For example, guidance counselor Barbara Puleo says the school has increasing numbers of students from rural China and Pakistan who have had little formal education and who speak almost no English. Many are 17 or 18 years old when they arrive. In addition, many students assigned to Dewey didn't choose it and aren't prepared for its distinctive philosophy, say teachers and administrators.
"They need structure. They need hand-holding. We treated them with more maturity and responsibility than they could handle," says the principal.
The changes became particularly noticeable after several large high schools in Brooklyn closed in 2003 and again when Lafayette High School in nearby Bath Beach stopped admitting new students in 2007. Enrollment at Dewey grew from 3,180 in 2002-03 to 3,349 in 2004-05 in a building designed to house 2,500. Although enrollment is now more manageable, the school continues to wrestle with student achievement: Graduation rates declined from 71 percent in 2003 to 63 percent in 2007, while attendance declined from 88 percent in 2002-03 to 83 percent in 2007-08.
While it's difficult to engage students who haven't chosen the school, teachers do their best. The principal has reorganized the ninth grade so that students have fewer teachers and class changes. Teams of teachers work with small groups of students in small learning communities to make an environment that is both more structured and more nurturing, he says.
"We need to make the ninth-grade experience more similar to their experience in junior high school—a limited number of teachers, more of a family environment," Fried says. "We may need to change more. Everyone has a vested interest in doing what's right for the students."
At Jane Addams, too, the staff is working hard to accommodate the struggling students they now serve while marketing the school to a wider range of kids. "What the small schools have taught the large schools is you have to adapt to changing times," says Smalls, the principal, who previously taught at a small school in East Harlem, the Heritage School, as well as the gigantic Evander Childs High School in the Bronx as it was being broken up into small schools.
Smalls says she plans to increase the number of sports offered as a way to encourage boys to apply, while expanding the technology offerings, such as computer programming. "We've got to change the product," she says. "We have to be attractive to the students."