At Schools That Closed, More Students Graduate and More Drop-Out

With the Department of Education looking to phase-out 25 more low-performing schools, the City Council is seeking more information about what happened to students at similar schools that closed.

At a hearing held by the Council's education committee on Tuesday, Department of Education officials pointed to data from 21 high schools that closed between 2002 and 2009. The schools gradually stopped accepting ninth graders while new schools opened in their same buildings.

The data showed those students who stayed in the closing schools until the end actually had much higher graduation rates than before their schools were picked for phase-outs.

A total of 56 percent of the students finished on time, compared to 37 percent the year before the city put the schools on the closure list. That figure includes students who got GEDs and special education diplomas. The state only looks at regular local and Regents diplomas when it calculates on-time graduation rates.

Deputy Chief Academic Officer Josh Thomases said the total increase was a good sign. Students weren't "left behind" as so many Council members had feared. He attributed the higher rate to an intensive push to get more students to graduate, but he also acknowledged their drop out rates also went up slightly.

"As part of that push, and as we're phasing out a school, it is true that there's a small uptick in dropout rate," he said following the hearing.

The dropout rate in the schools in the study went up by almost seven percentage points, from 23.7 percent before the schools were picked for phase-outs to 29.5 percent the year they were shut.

Thomases said the data showed the city still had room for improvement when it comes to working with students at risk.

"Part of our work is convincing those students who are not yet ready to graduate but need to stay another year to stay in the system and work with another school to do it," he said.

He also said the percentage of discharges went up slightly at the 21 schools.

Students are counted as discharged when they leave the school system. That can be for a wide variety of reasons ranging from moving to another city to a sudden pregnancy.

The City Council's education committee is considering two bills aimed at providing more transparency. One would require the city to give more information about students at schools that close, such as how many stay and how many leave. A second would require a more thorough breakdown of the discharge rate. There are concerns that the city uses discharges to artificially inflate the graduation rate (and lower the dropout rate).

The New York Civil Liberties Union requested data on discharges under the state's Freedom of Information Law. For the 2008-2009 school year. It found 2487 discharged students had gone to GED programs. Most were affiliated with the city's Department of Education, but more than 400 went to other GED programs. Another 158 were discharged for reasons relating to pregnancy or parenting. That was out of a total number of 48,000 discharges that year according to Udi Ofer, of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Most of those students had moved out of the city.

Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, the Department of Education's Executive Director of Research and Policy Support, told Council members during Tuesday's hearing that the increase in the city's graduation rate under Mayor Bloomberg's watch is not related to the discharge rate.

The four-year graduation rate was about 60 percent in 2009 (slightly higher when counting August graduates). It was 47 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, she said the discharge rate for the four-year cohort  "remained steady between 19 and 20 percent." And the dropout rate decreased from 22 percent in 2005 to 11.8 percent in 2009.

The DOE. officials met a tough crowd Tuesday. Most of the council members used the nearly four-hour long hearing to criticize the administration's policy of closing failing schools.

Brooklyn Council member Lew Fidler saw it as a conspiracy to bring in more charter schools.

"Other than bike lanes, I haven't seen the administration do anything so single-mindedly," Fidler said.

The administration has closed more than 90 schools since 2002 while opening more than 400 new schools, about a quarter of which are charters.

Council member Letitia James of Brooklyn berated the education officials for ignoring pleas about the problems at Middle School 571, which is slated for closure. She mentioned the high turnover of principals and the loss of staffers who weren't replaced.

"The DOE ... failed this school, failed my community," she said.

Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg agreed to speak with her after the hearing to answer more questions. But he also said it would be irresponsible for the city not to close failing schools.

"When we feel the supports we've given to a school are not getting the job done ... we are going to consider every intervention possible," said Sternberg.

In response to Council members who said the failing schools needed more resources, Thomases, of the DOE., argued some of them, including Jamaica High, had already gotten extra help.

He noted that the school had tried smaller learning communities to no effect. As for why some schools improve while others fail, he called that "the 64 million dollar question."

He cited New Dorp High on Staten Island as an example of a struggling school that managed to turn itself around. He suggested New Dorp might not have had as high a percentage of low-performing ninth graders as other schools, where a huge concentration made it too tough to quickly improve.

The Panel for Educational Policy will vote on plans to close 25 schools next week at two meetings on February 1 and 3 at 6 p.m. at Brooklyn Tech High School.  The city is also closing the Ross Global charter school, a move that doesn't need the panel's approval.