Aspire Prep Says It Should Not Be Penalized for One Bad Year

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To hear its principal, Steven Cobb, tell the story, Aspire Preparatory Middle School experienced the perfect storm in the fall of 2010. The state made its annual math and reading tests harder to pass that year and, like most schools, Aspire did poorly.

Then, just as the school was adjusting to meet the tougher standards, the staff was hammered, Mr. Cobb said. Eight of his 34 teachers were out sick for extended periods during the last school year.

"I had a teacher that went out on maternity leave for seven months," he explained. "A teacher who was hospitalized for six months. Teachers with legitimate medical issues that were out for over 100 days."

In a small school with about 500 students, Mr. Cobb said having almost a quarter of his staff chronically absent was devastating. Christopher Joanis taught seventh grade last year and recalled the revolving door of substitutes.

"I was actually next door to two classes that were manned by substitutes. I would stand out, many times, having to manage that. Kids would be sent to my room if they were a little out of control in the other classes," he said.

Meanwhile, instead of immersing themselves in new strategies -- as they had planned over the summer -- teachers said they had to help the substitutes with basic lessons. As a result, when the kids were tested last spring, less than a quarter of them passed the English Language arts exam.

With those low scores, Mr. Cobb says he fully expected the F he received on his latest report card. But he didn't expect that would put him on the list of 19 schools that Department of Education officials have recommended be phased out.

Mr. Cobb made all of those points during a public hearing Monday night on the school's fate. About 150 parents, teachers and students filled the school's auditorium and loudly cheered for the principal.

Grace Lovaghio, a vice president of the local Community Education Council for District 11, asked, "Why bring in another school? Why not bring those resources to Aspire?"

Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm took notes throughout the hearing. She told the audience that Aspire was on the state’s list of Persistently Dangerous Schools. She also said its low scores put it within the bottom 10 percent of all city middle schools.

Asked later if last year could have been a fluke because of the absent teachers, Ms. Grimm held firm.

"This is a big system," she said. "Could I find another school that had similar problems last year and the children did O.K.? I probably could."

If anything, until 2010 Aspire was considered the solution to persistent failure. It’s one of three small schools, along with Bronx Green and Pelham Preparatory Academy, that replaced Whelan middle school in the Northeast Bronx.

All three schools have higher test scores than the school they replaced. Aspire earned Bs from the city until its grade fell to a C in 2010 when the state made its exams harder to pass.

This year, Mr. Cobb said his staff is already turning around the school. Nobody’s been ill. Student attendance is up. And teachers said they are now immersed in a new curriculum that gives students 20 percent more time for math and English Language Arts.

The Panel for Educational Policy is expected to approve the city's recommendations to close the 19 schools at its Feb. 9 meeting.