Dear Commons Community,
In the past dozen years or so, one approach of many urban school districts has been to reorganize high-enrollment schools. A major policy of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and continued under Mayor Bill de Blasio was to reorganized a large school in one building into smaller schools or “houses”. Some of these schools have progressed while others have not. The New York Times has a featured story today on two schools in the same building in the South Bronx where one is succeeding while the other is getting ready to be closed. Here is an excerpt:
“What is the distance between progress and failure?
At 1000 Teller Avenue in the South Bronx, it is two flights of stairs and a few points on the annual state exams — the gap between the New Millennium Business Academy Middle School, on the second floor, and Junior High School 145 Arturo Toscanini, on the fourth.
Both schools teach children from poor families, including large numbers of recent immigrants. Both are in the de Blasio administration’s Renewal program, which has provided nearly $400 million in social services and academic assistance to the city’s most struggling schools. At both, the percentage of children who pass the English and math exams each year is in the single digits or low double digits.
But the city’s Education Department sees New Millennium as on the rise. Its test scores have ticked up, however slightly. Enrollment is steady. The schools chancellor recently paid a visit and praised the school’s gains.
Just up the stairs, it is a different story. The Education Department said in January that J.H.S. 145 would be one of six Renewal schools that would be closed for not making sufficient progress. This school year is likely to be J.H.S. 145’s last.
At a hearing at the school in January, a parent asked the superintendent who oversees the school, Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario, why it hadn’t improved.
“We don’t know,” Ms. Rodriguez-Rosario said. “The formula didn’t work.”
But in several visits to the building and in interviews with teachers at both schools, it became clear that decisive leadership can make or break a school’s turnaround efforts: At New Millennium, a longtime principal has united the staff in a sense of optimism and purpose. At J.H.S. 145, a rapid succession of principals, along with other blows, has sown frustration and mistrust. One sign of that mistrust: Some staff members believe that the city is closing the school primarily to give its space to a charter school that moved into the building in 2015.
“It’s very, very hard not to be a complete and utter cynic when it comes to this,” James Donohue, a longtime English teacher at the school, said. Ms. Rodriguez-Rosario’s assertion that the closing “has absolutely nothing to do with the charter school” is nonsense, he said.
Until 2004, J.H.S. 145 occupied the whole building, with more than 1,600 students, and it struggled academically. The Bloomberg administration divided the building into three schools, believing that smaller schools would perform better. The most senior teachers stayed at J.H.S. 145, while some of the more junior ones went to the two new schools, New Millennium and the Urban Science Academy, which is also in the Renewal program.
But dividing the school didn’t improve things.”
The article goes on with interviews of staff to provide insights into the two schools. Bottom line is that there is no simple formula for “reforming” a school. A number of things have to come together with good, stable leadership at or near the top of the list.