News and Speeches

Testimony of NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott on Significant School Changes: Closures, Reconfigurations and Community Notification

10/02/2013

As Prepared for Delivery Before the NYC Council Committee on Education

Good afternoon Chairman Jackson and all the members of the City Council’s Education Committee here today. I am Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and I am joined by Sara Kaufman, Chief Portfolio Officer for the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Portfolio Management.

I would like to thank you for this opportunity to testify on a hallmark of this mayoral administration’s education reforms: our portfolio strategy, the DOE’s long-range blueprint to create better school options.

We are well aware that our strategy of phasing out low-performing schools and replacing them with new, smaller schools has been controversial, and I am glad to be here to discuss the details.

We did not embark upon this strategy lightly. Our schools were in a terrible crisis when the Mayor took office in 2002, and something serious needed to be done for the sake of our students’ futures.

Nearly a quarter of our students were dropping out of school each year—and that masked a far more dire situation at the city’s large high school campuses.

The graduation rate at Wingate High School in Brooklyn in 2002 was an alarming 29 percent. That meant 71 percent of students weren’t graduating!

At Park West, the graduation rate was 31 percent. At Erasmus, it was 32 percent. At Evander Childs, it was 31 percent. At Seward Park, it was 36 percent. At Prospect Heights High School, it was 34 percent. These were disastrous situations, and I could cite a dozen more.

Crime at these large schools was rampant. Gang fights inside Adlai Stevenson High School in the Bronx were so common that teachers regularly pulled down iron gates from the hallway ceilings to contain rioting. Teachers at some schools carried Mace to protect themselves.

At many of these schools, the dysfunction had persisted for years—and often decades. Countless efforts to turn them around had come and gone, but the culture of failure never changed. Something needed to be done.

There is often a common refrain: Give the failing school more time. Give its leaders a few more years to turn it around. The school will improve.

But when a school continues to fail its students after receiving additional support, we can not continue to kick the can down the road. Allowing our students to fall further and further behind is not an option. Students only have one shot, and if a school is not delivering we have a moral obligation to pursue different approaches, ones that we have seen repeatedly succeeding.

That brings me to our portfolio strategy.

Schools are dynamic places with many, many moving parts. At most schools, those parts move perfectly in sync; in some, small adjustments need to be made. But in rare cases, the moving parts are operating so poorly that no amount of professional development or additional dollars will help. In those cases, we have learned that the best way to transform a deeply dysfunctional school is sometimes to re-conceptualize it entirely.

Our approach is to conduct an exhaustive review of data, initiate conversations with families and schools during our early engagement process, and communicate with the public in joint public hearings.

It is a painful process to phase out a school. It is a tough and emotional experience for school communities, and a difficult one for us as well. We know that hearings will be contentious. We know families are passionate—and we celebrate their connection to their schools.

But what you often don’t see at these hearings are the people those schools did not serve well: the young adult struggling to make ends meet because he or she doesn’t have a high school diploma; the teacher who left the profession altogether out of frustration over working at a failing school. These are also people we are listening to.

Over the course of this administration, we have replaced 164 of our lowest-performing schools with better options and opened 654 new schools. Those new, small schools often serve the same student populations, in the same buildings. With a fresh school culture, a clear mission, and moving parts working in unison, they achieve results.

From single-sex schools, to career and technical education schools, to 9-14 schools—which offer a high school and Associate’s degree in six years—we have created extraordinary new offerings. They are unlike any that New York State, or even the country, have seen in the past. Across the city, new schools are serving tens of thousands of students, giving parents high-quality choices they never had before.

By housing two or more small schools inside a single building, we have been able to create more options than ever before—new, small schools that are large enough to tailor themes to students’ interests, and nimble enough to adapt to individual students. We now have schools for architecture…for television production…for computer technology…even zoology.

Students in small schools get more personalized instruction in environments where their unique learning styles are understood and nurtured. Teachers benefit from close partnerships and individualized professional development. Principals themselves can focus more on professional development, and less on day-to-day operations.

Instead of focusing on—for example—3,000 students, a principal can now focus on 300. Instead of hundreds of staff members, school leaders can develop dozens. There is extraordinary instructional value in this approach.

And here are the results:

Since 2002, the graduation rate at the former Wingate High School has risen from 29 percent to 74 percent.

At Erasmus, it has risen from 32 to 75 percent.

At Park West, the graduation rate has risen from 31 percent to 74 percent.

At Evander Childs, the graduation rate has risen from 31 percent to 70 percent.

At Seward Park, it has risen from 36 percent to 76 percent.

At Prospect Heights High School, the graduation rate has increased from 34 percent to 70 percent.

City wide, the drop-out rate has plummeted by half. And crime in our schools has been slashed by almost 50 percent!

This is a sea change for education in New York City.

In every borough, our new schools have higher graduation rates than the borough-wide average. Across New York City, the new schools have higher graduation rates than the citywide average.

These accomplishments are in large part due to our portfolio strategy—the top-to-bottom transformation of our schools.

The landscape is dramatically different today than it once was. We have become a nationally-recognized model for urban school systems, and our portfolio philosophy is a major reason why.

“College and career readiness” is now permanently a part of the lexicon in all of our schools. The Common Core Learning standards, designed to develop critical-thinking skills, are preparing students for the future like never before. And while we undoubtedly have a long way to go, we have doubled college readiness.

This summer, MDRC, a widely respected national non-profit group, analyzed the effect of the new schools we have created since 2002. The findings show that many of our new schools created since 2002 graduate 10 percent more students a year on average than others throughout the city.

We have proved that it is indeed possible to achieve resounding results—over a relatively short period of time—in an urban school system.

Across the city, families are clamoring for additional school options. To realize that for them, we have taken a bold, new approach to a precious resource in New York City: space.

It is a commodity that all New Yorkers wish they had more of; so do we. But resources are finite—and we have to maximize them. That is why our strategy involves an innovative way of thinking about the classrooms and buildings we have.

As we work to construct new buildings across the city—164 of them since 2002, with 35 more currently under construction—we have made every square foot count. We have done that through co-locations.

We have taken a system of one million students, the largest school system in the country, and made it feel more personal. Co-locations are an integral part of the success we have achieved through more intimate learning environments.

The co-location process is often driven by parents themselves, who vote with their feet, removing their children from large, struggling schools and sending them to better schools elsewhere.

This frees up space that we can use to introduce  new, high-quality options that excite students. This is another creative way in which we are expanding access to excellent schools and it contributes to the positive trajectory of the entire building.

These are approaches never tried before in a large city. But when you consider the system we inherited—32 separate, unequal school districts that yielded dismal performance—that is just what our schools and our students needed.

Our engagement process is essential to this work.

When we propose changes for school utilization, we mobilize an elaborate communications mechanism. It includes backpacking notices home to every single family, posting information to our website, and releasing details to the general public. Those notices are followed by hearings, a feedback period, and an intensive review process on our end.

It is a complex task to communicate to such an extraordinary cross-section of parents, across so many schools, across so many neighborhoods. It is work we have built upon, refined, and improved over time. This is not something we take lightly in any sense.

In a system of one million students, and millions of stakeholders, not every decision will achieve uniform agreement. But in the end, this administration has stood up for our families and students, leveling the playing field wherever we could.

We have worked to ensure that geographic boundaries and socioeconomic status do not determine the quality of the schools children have access to.

Our portfolio strategy has helped to reverse a deplorable situation, one that prevented generations of children in New York City from succeeding. It has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of students for the better.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to testify, and I can now take your questions.