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Schools with high-needs students most likely to face ax

Ten years into Bloomberg’s education reforms, the New York City school system has come full circle and is now shutting down new high schools at the same rate as old ones. High schools established by Bloomberg represent about 40 percent of all existing high schools and 38 percent of the high schools on the closing list.

But what all schools targeted for closure — whether opened on Mayor Bloomberg’s watch or not — have in common is a higher concentration of the highest-need students, especially high-need special education students in self-contained classrooms.

Every student in self-contained classes has been identified by a team of experts as having learning or emotional difficulties that are so great that he or she needs the intensive focus of very small classes. Other student situations such as poverty also bring challenges and have an impact on the ability of high schools to graduate students on time.

Yet old or new, high schools with high concentrations of self-contained students have similar graduation and attendance rates. They share similar low grades on their School Progress Reports, are labeled by the Department of Education as failing and get targeted for closure. Schools that do not serve these students on the other hand, are judged to be successes by the DOE, and so are left alone. [See tables below.]

Schools that do not teach self-contained students are far more likely to get As or Bs on their progress reports and less likely to be closed than are new or older schools that do serve such students.

Type of School % Self-
# of Schools Already Closing Being Considered for Closing % Ds & Fs % As & Bs
No Self Contained 0% 98 0% 0% 5% 78%
New 7.5% or more 15 27% 20% 13% 33%
Old 7.5% or more 32 13% 13% 22% 44%

New or old, schools with at least 7.5% self-contained special education students have similar graduation rates, identical attendance rates and the same safety scores.

Type of School % Self-
# of Schools Graduation Rate Attendance Safety Survey Score
New 7.5% or more 15 56% 80% 7
Old 7.5% or more 32 59% 80% 7

Uncomfortable findings like this often get lost in the public debate. For example, in a press release issued in December in conjunction with the announcement of the 25 schools that the DOE wants to close, Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg celebrated the nearly 83 percent graduation rate of the new small schools on the Van Arsdale campus, which he noted was 38 percentage points higher than the 2002 graduation rate of the former large comprehensive high school on the same Williamsburg site.

He went on: “The new schools on the Van Arsdale campus are achieving these results with a similar population of students that were served by the school they replaced.”

In fact, when the old Van Arsdale HS closed down in 2001, 200 students — 13 percent of the student body — required self-contained classrooms, while through last year, fewer than five students (less than 1/5 of 1 percent of the student body) required self-contained classrooms at all three new schools combined. On average, students arrived at these schools with reading and math scores above the 50th percentile. That’s still plenty of challenge, but it is not at all the same as the old Van Arsdale HS, where students arrived at the 25th percentile.

Another new school in the neighborhood did not make the press release: Juan Morel Campos. This is the only new high school in the district with a significant concentration of self-contained special education students (7.5 percent). Overall the school’s peer ranking placed it in the bottom 15 percent of all schools. The DOE gave the school a C on its most recent School Progress Report.

The DOE’s Educational Impact Statements, which it must issue for each school it wants to close, also do not tell the full story of the targeted schools.

For example, the DOE justifies the closure of Samuel Gompers HS in the Bronx by citing the fact that its graduation rates are “in the bottom 1 percent of high schools” but neglects to say that by its own reckoning the school is also in the highest 1 percent of all high schools when it comes to need. (The only other schools joining it there are a handful of schools already shutting down.)

What’s more, 77 percent of Gompers students are males, virtually all of whom are black or Hispanic. Graduation rates for black and Hispanic boys citywide is over 10 percentage points lower than the graduation rates for black and Hispanic girls.

This, along with the fact that Gompers has the city’s highest concentrations of self-contained students (15.7 percent), would make comparisons to the graduation rates of other schools highly problematic.

The poor graduation rates of these schools are not good enough. But they are not likely to improve until the DOE focuses on the students behind the statistics. Whatever the differences in school quality, we are not going to find them if we obscure the differences in the school populations.

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