In the five years since the city first started handing out A-F letter grades to its schools, principals have gotten used to the extra scrutiny. They know a school can be closed if their students don't show sufficient progress on their state exams.
City officials highlighted the stability of this year's reports, noting that 86 percent of schools did not change more than one grade since last year. But there were dramatic changes at several schools.
Last year, P.S. 299 in Buswick, Brooklyn got a D on its progress report. Fewer than a third of its students passed their state English exams and about 40 percent were proficient in math. But this year, English proficiency went up by 10 percentage points and the school earned an A.
"We feel great about it," said Principal Wilma Kanova Kirk. She added that her teachers looked closely at data and worked with students in small groups, and after school.
At P.S. 256 in Brooklyn, this year's B was especially sweet because the school earned an F last year. The city briefly considered closing the school, but decided to give it a second chance.
Principal Sharyn Hemphill said the school proved it was up to the challenge. "We changed the way we taught," she said, describing how teachers repeatedly assessed their pupils to figure out what they needed. In 2011, just about a third of the students were proficient in math and reading. This year, the percentage of students proficient in math went up 8 percentage points.
Hemphill said she never thought last year's poor grade was accurate. "The math was not right," she said, noting the school previously earned good marks.
But some schools that got low marks last year did not improve. General D. Chappie James Middle School
of Science in Brooklyn earned its second D in a row, with fewer than 20 percent of its students proficient in math and English. The city is phasing out the Chappie elementary school but it kept the middle school open.
The Choir Academy of Harlem fell from a B to an F this year. So did P.S. 190 in East New York, Brooklyn and P.S. 368, which is a District 75 school for special education students in grades K-12. Calls to the schools were not returned.
At schools that saw big gains, principals weren't the only ones celebrating. The Lexington Academy in East Harlem raised its grade from a D to an A. Speaking outside the school at dismissal, several parents said they noticed increased attention from teachers in the past year. Kimberly Scott said she was pleased with her daughter’s education at Lexington.
“She’s pretty good here. And she’s engaged,” Scott said. “She has a learning disability and they help that a lot. I see progress now.”
The city grades schools on a curve, awarding A's and B's to the top 25 and 35 percent. Schools in the bottom 10 percent are given D's and F's.
Schools that get three C's in a row, an F or a D are considered at risk for closure. The city takes other criteria into consideration, such as quality reviews by outside educators. Presumably, those reviews will get extra attention. This year 217 schools received a C grade or lower compared to 116 last year.
Of those schools, 114 received three C's in a row, compared to just five in 2011.
This leap is explained by the shift that occurred in 2010, when the state made its exams harder to pass. Many more students failed and, to compensate, the city put a low limit on how many schools could earn D and F grades, thereby increasing the number of schools receiving a grade of C.