NEWS AND ISSUES
February 16, 2012
Department of Education
52 Chambers Street
New York, New York 10007
Dear Chancellor Walcott
I write regarding the New York City Department of Education's (DOE) policy of phasing-out schools it considers to be underperforming and replacing them with new schools or grade expansion of existing schools.
I have been particularly frustrated by the DOE's complete lack of community engagement on the plans for new schools to replace those that are phased-out. Should the DOE make a determination to phase-out a school, it is incumbent upon the agency to ensure that those who are most directly affected have a voice in this process. Stakeholders in the existing school community and, in many cases, those of the schools with which they are co-located, as well as families living in the surrounding neighborhoods, have invaluable insight into the education needs that a new school or grade expansion could meet. Regrettably, it seems that the DOE relies exclusively on its in-house team, the Office of New Schools, in most cases. That the agency's new schools proposals are subject to a public hearing and a vote by the Panel for Education Policy is irrelevant, as the former bears no binding resolution and the latter is universally recognized to be entirely perfunctory. Even in the rare instances that public input at the hearings yields changes to a proposal, it often occurs too far along in the process to meaningfully impact what is ultimately placed in the vacated space.
One counter-example to this trend that could serve as a model for reforming the new schools process is the development of the Frank McCourt High School (M417), which occupies space made available through the phase-out of Louis D. Brandeis High School (M470). Community stakeholders from the Upper West Side as well as the neighborhoods that had previously fed into Brandeis, including representatives from local elected officials, formed a working group in the basement of New York City Councilmember Gale Brewer's district office to craft the proposal for the Frank McCourt High School. With flexibility and considerable technical support on the part of the DOE, we were able to create an extremely popular and diverse school that opened with broad support. This effort was exceptional, however, as many communities do not have the resources to initiate and see to fruition their own school proposals without the DOE's encouragement. To achieve similar results citywide, the DOE should establish a formal process for engaging communities of schools slated for phase-out through their district Community Education Councils to gauge their priorities, if not their concrete proposals. This process should also be used to develop schools in facilities that are available for other reasons, such as the Beacon School at 227 West 61 Street. To help ensure families' confidence in the education of their children, heal the wounds created by the painful phase-out process, and, most importantly, craft the best possible new school proposals, I urge you to begin this process at the earliest stages of planning and development. It should also include input from the United Federation of Teachers, the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators and, should a given community request the additional support, the education departments of New York City's highly-regarded institutions of higher learning.
This engagement is particularly important in light of the rising resentment over school phase-outs. Many stakeholders in schools that the DOE recently slated for closure are understandably angry. Frankly, I am deeply concerned about these phase-outs, as well. Families whose children attend the three such schools that are located in my Senate district have expressed a legitimate concern that remaining students suffer the most from these decisions, losing crucial opportunities afforded to students of schools with greater populations and curriculum diversity. There are also less tangible negative impacts on students attending schools deemed failures. Indeed many at public hearings on the latest proposed closures spoke of a sense of abandonment. Furthermore, many of these schools have new leaders and have only recently begun to undergo reform initiatives. Going forward, such schools should be given sufficient time to realize fully and demonstrate their success.
On a related note, I question whether there are differences in populations served by schools that are phasing-out and those that are phasing-in. I understand that a recent study conducted by MDRC found that new small schools opened by the DOE in facilities previously occupied by large, underperforming schools "markedly improv[e] academic progress and substantially improv[e] graduation prospects, particularly for disadvantaged students." However, the Coalition for Educational Justice and NY Communities for Change have presented data suggesting that these small schools serve a far smaller proportion of children in self-contained special education classes. It might be that these schools are better able to integrate such students into Integrated Co-Teaching classes. Otherwise, it would seem that these high-needs students tend to land in other large schools. I am sure you would agree that an improvement in education outcomes achieved by serving fewer high-needs students is not really an improvement at all. I therefore ask the DOE to provide a comparative analysis of the students attending schools already undergoing phase-out and those that are phasing-in.
Thank you for your consideration of my comments and your dedication to the education of all New York City public school students.
Thomas K. Duane
New York State Senate