City to Decide Soon on Fate of More than 50 Struggling Schools

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This week, the city is expected to announce the fate of more than 50 schools that could be closed because of low performance. Some of them could be phased-out starting next fall, while others could get federal funds to make improvements. The issue is extremely contentious because parents and teachers usually rally around their schools, even if they're struggling. 

Reporter Anna Phillips of the Web site GothamSchools has been covering the issue for a collaboration with WNYC called The Big Fix.

Closing failing schools and replacing them with new ones has been a hallmark of the mayor's school reforms. How many have the mayor and Chancellor Joel Klein closed so far?

Since Mayor Bloomberg took office, the city has closed or begun to phase out more than 90 schools, many of them large, traditional high schools. And they've replaced them with clusters of small schools, creating campuses where you have as many as five schools in one building. In total, they've opened more than 350 new schools.

Has this policy worked, in terms of getting better schools?

In some cases the schools that replaced the closing schools are better. They're posting higher graduation rates and are more likely to get A's and B's on the city's annual progress reports. But, and there's a big but here, several reports have shown that many of these schools aren't admitting as many high-needs kids as the schools they replaced. So they'll post a grad rate that's well above the city average of 60 percent in four years, but they won't enroll as many students who need help learning English.

We're also now at a point where some of these small schools have been open for five or six years and they're doing so poorly that the city wants to shut them down. Columbus High School, which I've been reporting on, shares its building with four small schools. One of them, Global Enterprise High School, opened in 2003, so it's only been around for seven years. But it's got a graduation rate of 55% and the city already wants to close it.

Last year the city tried to close 19 low-performing schools and was blocked by a teachers union lawsuit. What's going on in those schools now? Is morale really low or are they getting any help to improve?

At the very beginning of this year, those 19 schools were supposed to get extra help. The city and union agreed that they'd help the schools bring in community based organizations and they'd give them more teachers. That hasn't happened so at many of these schools, morale is very low. They're operating on slimmer budgets, some can't afford enough teachers so they're cutting class offerings, and they know the city plans to try and close them again this year.

At Columbus, things are little different because they believe they've found a way to stay open: they want to become a charter school. The principal and teachers there are lobbying the city to let them convert to a charter school with a focus on students learning English.

Does Columbus even have enough students for a full class of 9th graders? It's hard to imagine kids would have applied last year to a school they knew was failing.

Columbus has about 300 9th graders and half of them applied to the school, meaning they ranked it among their top choices, and half of them were placed there by the city.

The ones who applied mostly knew the school was in trouble. The principal apparently talked about it at the open houses and it's been in the papers. But often they had relatives who went to Columbus, they didn't want to travel to other high schools, or there were programs at Columbus like the culinary classes that drew them.

Given the lawsuit over closing Columbus and the other schools this year, how is the city proceeding with plans to close or turnaround those schools plus another 40 or so schools next year?

They're still going ahead with those plans. Earlier this month, the deputy chancellor for community engagement, Santiago Taveras, came to Columbus and said that this week the chancellor's cabinet will sit down and begin making decisions this week. They'll decide which schools to close or keep open. And Klein is in office until December 31, so that will ultimately be his decision.

What Taveras told parents, all 25 who showed up, is that if the DOE is convinced the school is making changes and beginning to see improvement, they'll keep it open and give it additional support. For their part, the Columbus staff want to push through this charter school conversion before the city can close them.