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Ups and Downs in New Report Cards for New York City High Schools

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Almost 70 percent of the city's high schools that were graded this year got A's and B's, a slight drop from last year when the top marks went to 75 percent. The city says it raised the bar for high schools to earn the higher grades this year.

The Progress Reports are based on student attendance, graduation rates, credit accumulation and surveys by parents, teachers and students. They're different for high schools than for elementary and middle schools, grades for which are based largely on the state's annual math and reading tests and which fluctuate a lot more as a result.

The city says the high school reports, overall, showed students improving across these various performance measures. But there were also more schools this year earning low marks. Nine got F's compared to just one in 2009 and there were 23 D's this year.

Schools that get three C's in a row or a D or an F run the risk of being shut down by the city. There are already 47 struggling schools that the Department of Education is considering phasing-out or turning around with new, federally-funded interventions.

Some of the high schools on that list made improvements. John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Queens earned a B this year. The large high school had earned a D in 2007-08 and a C in 2008-09.

Principal Grace Zwillenberg credits that gain to hard work by her 200 teachers and her more than 3,200 students. "You can't improve overnight," she said. "But we have made steady improvements in every single category. And you know it's getting better and I know that next year I'm going to get an A."

The four-year graduation rate climbed 10 percentage points to 61 percent. Zwillenberg said the creation of five small learning communities helped students get more individual attention at a school that needs an annex and classroom trailers because it's over-capacity. It's also got two new programs for struggling seniors to make up their credits and one for newcomers who don't speak English.

Zwillenberg hopes the B grade will help save John Adams High School. As one of the state's "persistently low achieving" schools, it can qualify for federal school improvement grants. Those can be used to phase-out failing schools or turn them around with various interventions. Eleven city high schools are currently getting federal improvement grants, worth up to $2 million annually, for the least dramatic intervention called "transformation." This involves replacing or assisting a principal and bringing in experts to help teachers plan their lessons and improve instruction for all different types of learners (see our series with GothamSchools called The Big Fix).

The teachers union noted that two out of the 47 schools on the city's watch list got B's this year (Grover Cleveland High School in Queens as well as John Adams). It called on the administration to help the schools instead of closing them. The union, the NAACP and some parents brought a lawsuit against the city this year when it tried to phase-out 19 failing schools (all of the high schools on that list are on that larger list of 47). Two courts ruled that the city violated state law by not providing enough community notification. The city is now holding hearings with parents, teachers and community leaders at all 47 of the schools as it decides whether they'll be phased-out and replaced with smaller schools or given more time and resources to improve.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said the new report cards will definitely be considered before final decisions are made later this year.

"We'll continue to look at the individual school based on the most contemporary data," he said. "I'm not making decisions here today. But I am going to assure everyone that I'll take that information as well as the engagement with the communities."

Klein also said many of those struggling schools continued to get C's and D's. Four of the 19 he wanted to shut got F's including Beach Channel High in Queens, the New Day Academy in the Bronx and Norman Thomas High School and the Academy of Environmental Sciences in Manhattan. The other F's went to Herbert Lehman High School in the Bronx, where the principal is being investigated for allegedly changing students' grades (see report by our friends at GothamSchools); Urban Assembly Academy for History and Citizenship for Young Men in the Bronx; Performance Conservatory High School in the Bronx; and Cypress Hills Collegiate and Preparatory School in Brooklyn.

Klein and Deputy Chancellor Shael Suransky continued to point to their success in replacing large, failing schools with smaller schools that now have higher graduation rates. They made their announcement about the new progress reports at the Manhattan Bridges school in Midtown, which is one of several small schools in the building that once housed Park West High School. Klein noted that Park West's graduation rate was less than 50 percent. But he said the new schools in the building have a graduation rate above 75 percent. "They consistently overperform the schools that preceded them," added Suransky.

But among the F schools and the 23 schools receiving D's, there were a few small new schools such as the Urban Assembly Academy for History and Citizenship for Young men and the Dreamyard Preparatory School, both on at the old William Howard Taft High School campus in the Bronx, and Williamsburg Charter High School in Brooklyn.

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