Students and Staff Say Washington Irving Was Set Up to Fail

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4:51 p.m. | Updated Now followed by a response from Marc Sternberg, deputy chancellor for portfolio planning.

The sun had not yet risen on Washington Irving High School when students, teachers and parents began gathering on the school's steps on Tuesday morning to protest its likely closing.

Their school, which is located in the middle of Manhattan's upscale Gramercy Park neighborhood, is one of 25 public schools the city's Department of Education is proposing to close over the next several years for poor performance. But the group that assembled on the school's steps in the cold morning air was determined to have it otherwise.

In what has become a common refrain in the closing schools debate, they blamed the city for sending them some of the toughest students and looking away as the school staggered under their weight.

Since 2003, when more than 3,000 students were enrolled at Washington Irving, the population at the 9th through 12th grade school has declined precipitously to roughly 1,200 in the 2010-11 school year.

The city's Department of Education purposely downsized the school -- creating space for several other schools, which share the building -- but teachers said that enrollment also fell after Washington Irving became known as a violent place.

Gregg Lundahl, the school's union chapter leader, said that the school's troubles began in the early part of the last decade, when conditions in the school became dangerous and violence was common. Although Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg apologized to parents and the violence abated, the school acquired a reputation for being unruly.

"What happened was we got a bad name and less people wanted to come to Washington Irving," Mr. Lundahl said.

As families abandoned the school, many of the most difficult students stayed behind and the city continued to send the school more. Between 2011 and 2006, Washington Irving's special education population grew to 16 percent from 10 percent. Last school year, one in five of its students was unable to speak English fluently, whereas in 2006, that figure was closer to one in 10.

Since 2007, when the Department of Education began giving schools annual letter grade ratings, Washington Irving has earned two Fs, two Cs, and in 2011, another F. After the first failing grade, a new principal, Bernardo Ascona, was assigned to the school, and city officials said they had high hopes he could turn the school around.

According to students and teachers, Mr. Ascona is improving the school, but the changes take time. The graduation rate for the class of 2011 was 48 percent, an improvement over the 2007 graduation rate of 45 percent.

"I noticed that students started going to class every day," said Leslie Duran, 16, a junior in the school's International Baccalaureate program. "And everyone started doing their work. As time progressed, it did get much better."

Veronique Bennett, 17, a senior, said that now, if students try to skip school, they can look forward to a phone call to their homes by Mr. Ascona.

As protestors chanted "Where's our library, Mr. Bloomberg?" a man appeared on a white bicycle, safety lights blinking, and pointed uptown. The school's former librarian, he lost his job to budget cuts, and is now shuffled from school to school as a substitute teacher.

Response by Marc Sternberg, deputy chancellor for portfolio planning:

Our underlying mission at the Department of Education is encompassed in two words: children first.  Everything we do is geared towards providing children and families all over New York City access to high quality schools that will give them the tools to be successful in academics and in life.  When a school fails its students year after year, it is our obligation to provide our students with new and better options.

Phasing out a school is a difficult and emotional process, and oftentimes results in individuals who are close to the school -- the teachers, students, parents and principal -- attempting to lay blame or make excuses for why the school has failed to perform. 

This was the case Tuesday during a protest at Washington Irving High School where some said they felt the school had been set up to fail, and we hear familiar refrains about the school being unable to cope with its student population, attendance problems and lack of resources.  

The reality is that Washington Irving High School has been struggling for decades.  In 1995, only 43 percent of its students were graduating on time, compared to a citywide average of 51 percent.  There was violence in the school, and many families did not feel comfortable sending their children there.

While the school has gotten safer, it has not improved student outcomes very much.  Today, Washington Irving High School’s graduation rate is a full 17 points below the citywide average, and one out of every two students does not graduate in four years.  The result has been that parents are choosing better options for their children and enrollment at the school has declined.

Our students do not deserve to languish in failing schools when we know we can deliver a better outcome.  Schools with student populations and challenges that are very similar to Washington Irving are able to deliver a high quality education to their students. 

For example, the High School for Law and Public Service, where 18 percent of students have disabilities and one out of every four students is an English Language Learner, has a graduation rate of 73 percent -- 25 points higher than Washington Irving. 

And 58 percent of Law and Public Service seniors are enrolling in college. 

At Harry S. Truman High School, 23 percent of students are disabled, but their graduation rate stands at 62 percent, 14 points higher than Washington Irving. 

And while Washington Irving’s most recent Progress Report grade was an F, Harry S. Truman received a B, with an A grade in the section grading student performance.  So we know we can do better.   

The decision to phase out a school is not an easy one, but our obligation is to our students, and we are not going to set them up for failure by pretending a school will suddenly make progress after years of failing its kids.