The sights of the education community are shifting toward the Morris Educational Campus in the Bronx, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg will deliver his State of the City speech on Thursday, presumably with an emphasis on the schools.
The mayor usually keeps his annual speech secret until shortly before he delivers it, so there's no telling whether he will go the way of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo -- who allowed word to leak about his plans for an education commission, but then touched only lightly on schools during his State of the State speech on Jan. 4 -- or will use this moment to underscore education as his signature issue.
Many are betting on the latter, after a difficult year in which the mayor stumbled badly with the appointment of Cathleen P. Black as chancellor; graduation rates improved but college-readiness lagged; and city officials have not been able to deliver even a partial agreement on a teacher evaluation system (which has put nearly $60 million in federal money promised to the city in jeopardy).
On Wednesday, critics and others were depicting the location of the speech as symbolic of the weaknesses of the Bloomberg administration's education program. The mayor clearly sees it as a symbol of its success.
The Morris Educational Campus has been a virtual laboratory for the small-schools movement championed by the mayor and the former chancellor, Joel I. Klein. Morris High School, which was built in 1897 and was the first public high school in the Bronx, was dangerous and failing when it was broken up a decade ago.
There are now four schools located on the campus on Boston Road:
The school faces many challenges. Some students have poor attendance because they take extended vacations in their home countries. About half the students have had their schooling interrupted, and many enter with weak skills. Many students cannot use proper punctuation, misspell words and lack an understanding of sentence structure. Many are not literate in their native language. Some families, desperate for their children's wages, ask them to leave school before graduating so they can work. Others discourage their children from applying to college because they are undocumented, and therefore will be ineligible for most financial aid. The school works hard to educate families on the benefits of a diploma, and scholarships that are available to undocumented students. And, despite the challenges, many students graduate and go on to 4-year colleges.
Thirty-two percent of students did well enough on their Regents exams to graduate in four years with a Regents diploma. The average daily attendance is 86 percent, partly because of parents' propensity to take their children out of school for visits to their home country, Inside Schools says.
Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies has an interesting collaboration with the Theater Development Fund, a not-for-profit organization that sends visiting artists into classrooms and students to the theater. The school opened in September 2003 with a score of 9th graders and will add a grade every year until it becomes a full-fledged high school.
The Regents rate is 36 percent and average attendance rate is 77 percent.
The High School for Violin and Dance has only 250 students, K-12, the majority of whom are female. It was given an A on its last school progress report. There are no admissions requirements; students do not even have to have prior experience in dance or violin. Inside Schools reports:
The High School of Violin and Dance is based on the idea that students can learn a lot through exposure to the performing arts, not only skills, but character traits like discipline. A group of novice teachers and administrators are working hard to teach these lessons, while also trying to find effective classroom management techniques to focus often restless students.
Its average attendance rate is 83 percent, and its Regents rate is 68 percent.
School for Excellence has more than 400 students, K-12. It received a B on its school progress report, scoring highly on student progress, though not as well on student performance. Its average attendance rate is 74 percent. It has not yet been reviewed by Inside Schools.
Critics of the mayor's schools policies concede there have been improvements at the schools, but said it is because they are skimming the best students -- a common complaint lodged against many of the new schools and charter schools that were opened in recent years.
In a news release, a coalition of critics said:
Indeed, Morris’s graduation rates have improved since it was closed and re-opened under the Bloomberg Administration — but at the expense of high-needs (self-contained) special education students who were forced to attend other schools. The old Morris HS had a 14 percent rate of self-contained special education students; the new Morris HS campus schools have an average of just two percent.
In an internal memo, the United Federation of Teachers, which is battling with the city over teacher evaluations, analyzed some of the data:
Attendance rates for all four schools are below the 86% citywide average. The citywide “college-ready” rate is about 20%; even compared to this modest standard, the “college-ready” rates for these schools are extremely low.
The memo also said:
The Morris Schools’ attendance and “college-ready” rates are generally no better than the rates at the schools that the DoE has targeted for closure -- Gompers, Legacy, Gateway, Dodge, Addams, Washington Irving, Theater Lab, and International Business.
The coalition of advocates said parents and others would rally outside Morris Educational Complex on Thursday, right before the mayor's address. The speech will be delivered at 1 p.m., and is being streamed live on City Room. It is available at nyc.gov, on iPhones and iPads, and on NYC-TV Channel 74.