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In NYC, Small Schools Touted to Make a Big Difference in Education Reform

December 23, 2010 at 3:44 PM EDT
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An effort to create smaller schools in New York City has spurred some success stories -- and controversy -- among educators. John Tulenko reports.

MARGARET WARNER: Now: making schools smaller, yet another plan to deliver better educations to urban schoolchildren.

Special correspondent John Tulenko reports from New York City, where the outgoing schools chancellor is a big supporter of the idea.

JOHN TULENKO: Two years ago, when Justin Martinez started ninth grade, he was one of 2,000 students at Bayard Rustin High School in New York City.

JUSTIN MARTINEZ, student: When you walk the halls, it’s, like, so packed. And then, when you’re in the classrooms, some kids don’t even have a seat. So, it’s like you’re standing up, you’re sitting on the floor, you’re sitting on the teacher’s desk. There are so many kids in the room that the teacher thinks you’re doing good, and you may not even understand what’s going on. That’s how bad it was.

JOHN TULENKO: Justin’s high school had a 50 percent graduation rate, but the problems there went deeper.

JUSTIN MARTINEZ: I almost got shot. I was going to my eighth period classroom, going up the stairs, and a gang came up to me, approached me, and asked me questions. And, at the end, he pointed put a gun in my face.

JOHN TULENKO: So, what did you do?

JUSTIN MARTINEZ: I was shocked, like, I just stopped. And I didn’t know what to do. I was just shocked. I was scared. I didn’t want to die. And I was there, like — and they was just talking, like, having a conversation. And one of the kids — like, one of the kids asked, “Should I do it? Like, “Should I pull the trigger?”

And he turned — once he turned around — I was by the stairs, and I just ran down the stairs, and I was just gone.

JOHN TULENKO: Did you go back to school the next day?

JUSTIN MARTINEZ: I went to the precinct and filed a report to get out of the school.

JOHN TULENKO: Shortly after that happened, New York City shut down Justin’s school. For the last eight years, the city has been closing large, dangerous, and low-performing high schools, 26 to date.

JOEL KLEIN, New York City school chancellor: I’m proud of large numbers of big schools we have in this city. And I could go through the city and show them to you. What I’m not happy with is a large school that has a 35 percent or a 40 percent or a 45 percent graduation rate.

JOHN TULENKO: Joel Klein is New York City’s schools chancellor.

JOEL KLEIN: And if I think a school has got the kind of failure culture, low expectations, nonperformance, my job is to create a different option for those kids.

JOHN TULENKO: That different option has been small high schools, like this one, Williamsburg Prep, where Justin now goes to school.

JUSTIN MARTINEZ: When you come here, it feels like you have so much more room, you have so much more, like, attention. The teachers are willing to let you ask questions, willing to let you come after school. So, it’s, like, better for you. It’s better for a lot of kids, you know?

JOHN TULENKO: Enrollment at Williamsburg Prep is around 500. It’s a quarter the size of most large high schools.

Ben Lockeretz teaches math.

BEN LOCKERETZ, teacher, Williamsburg Preparatory High School: It’s a small school where the teachers are very talented and work very, very hard. And the administration is on top of the teachers to make sure that is really happening. And we don’t let kids fall through the cracks.

JOHN TULENKO: Small schools can do things large schools cannot. For instance, Williamsburg Prep designs its schedule so that the students in each grade have the same lunch period as their teachers.

BEN LOCKERETZ: So, a student, if he’s falling behind in one of his classes, can find those teachers for extra help. If he misses a day of school, he can find those teachers for extra work, and not fall farther behind.

JOHN TULENKO: In small schools like this one, it’s even easy to schedule planning periods, so teachers of the same subjects meet at the same time.

KATHLEEN ELVIN, principal, Williamsburg Preparatory High School: I think it’s easier for everybody to know everybody. I get to talk to most teachers in the school several times a week. Some of them will say, wow, what are you doing here again?


That, where they came from, they never saw the principal.

JOHN TULENKO: Principal Kathleen Elvin started this school six years ago.

KATHLEEN ELVIN: Ideally, the place should look like a private school. So, it may seem very minor, but it’s really important to me that the furniture matches, that the furniture is clean, that the classrooms are clean. It has to feel like everything about the place is cared about, because the people who come here are so important.

JOHN TULENKO: Williamsburg Prep offers a traditional academic curriculum. Other small schools the city created have different themes.

This is the High School for Violin and Dance. It has 259 students.

Tanya John is principal.

TANYA JOHN, principal, High School for Violin and Dance: What’s special about our school is that we give students opportunities who haven’t had the chance for the arts.

JOHN TULENKO: What’s a typical day like?

TANYA JOHN: A normal program is math, science, English, social studies, violin, dance. They get the opportunity to vote every day.

JOHN TULENKO: How do you select who gets to come here?

TANYA JOHN: We do not. It’s random high school application process, just having the desire, just like any other New York City high school, no different.

JOHN TULENKO: So, it doesn’t matter if I have never taken violin or dance?

TANYA JOHN: Ninety-eight percent of them have not.

JOHN TULENKO: Other small high schools focus on business, law, science and engineering, media, sports management, and more. In all, over an eight-year period, New York City created 123 small, theme-based, open-admission high schools from scratch.

What are the results?

JOEL KLEIN: The results are compelling now. I mean, schools that we shut down, like in Bushwick — and we had a lot of community resistance. That school had like a 28 percent graduation rate. The schools that replaced it have 72 percent. And some of these schools are getting really outsized results.

JOHN TULENKO: Like Williamsburg Prep, where the graduation rate is 88 percent, and the High School for Violin and Dance, where it’s 83 percent.

That’s all good, but it’s not the whole story. There’s also been a downside. When the city closed a large high school with, say, 2,000 students, it was replaced by small schools serving, in most cases, hundreds of students less. And each time that happened, all those leftover teenagers had to find somewhere else to go to school.

JOHN TULENKO: The solution? New York City sent them to large, often crowded schools it hadn’t closed.

JOANNE FRANK, principal: When I explained to high school admissions that, yes, we’re large, but we are not large enough to have walls that expand, it didn’t really matter.

JOHN TULENKO: Joanne Frank was principal at Norman Thomas High School when the new students arrived.

JOANNE FRANK: We had 3,300 students on register for a building whose capacity was 1,800. We had 500 to 600 over-the-counter students. It was almost claustrophobic.

JOHN TULENKO: According to Clara Hemphill, a longtime watcher of the city’s public schools, these over-the-counter students, as the department called them, weren’t just any students.

CLARA HEMPHILL, Center for New York City Affairs: The new small schools didn’t accept kids who were new to the country or kids with special education needs in the first couple of years. So, disproportionate numbers of very needy kids were diverted and sent to the remaining large high schools. They had lots more needy kids, and they didn’t get any more resources to help them.

JOHN TULENKO: At 15 of these large schools, graduation rates fell. This was the reaction soon afterward, when eight become targets for closing.

MICHAEL MULGREW, president, United Federation of Teachers: You know, there are communities that are quite angry because they said, you know, we had a great school eight years ago, and now we have a school that has all sorts of problems, but we don’t feel it was of our doing.

JOHN TULENKO: Michael Mulgrew is president of the local teachers union. Last winter, it filed a lawsuit to stop the city from closing another 17 high schools.

MICHAEL MULGREW: I know that this could have been done better. To me, we should have had a mechanism in place that, if we switched a population or did a complete integration of a new population in a school, we are also saying, listen, we know that your population is changing, the needs are changing, and we’re giving you these things that will help you.

That wasn’t happening.

JOHN TULENKO: But Chancellor Klein’s view is different.

JOEL KLEIN: I think we should be candid about it. I think the pushback is from the union that this dislocates teachers, and that teachers do not like it, because if I come in and I start a new school, that means you have fewer kids. If you have fewer kids, particularly in tight budget times, you have fewer teachers. And I think that’s what this is about. It’s a game about who has the power.

JOHN TULENKO: It didn’t take the court long to decide the matter. And it ruled in favor of the union, putting a temporary halt to school closings.

CLARA HEMPHILL: What the court said was, you can’t close the schools without coming up with a good plan for what you’re going to do with the kids who are displaced. And I think the Department of Education didn’t think carefully enough about what was going to happen to those kids.

JOEL KLEIN: We have created over the course of the years a number of seats that we shut down. I think the numbers are quite clear. And I will be happy to get them to you. I think we do have the seats and the capacity.

JOHN TULENKO: But the criticism is that you didn’t have a plan.

JOEL KLEIN: We may not have done our job thoroughly enough. And, this year, we have started earlier. We’re engaging the communities more effectively. And I think that’s an important point.

But it’s always going to be controversial. And if it’s not controversial, it’s a pretty good indication that it’s not going to be powerful. If people want the same results, they can do the same old, same old. If people want different results — and we have gotten much different results in New York — they’re going to have to do the tough work.

JOHN TULENKO: Even with the problems, New York City’s overall graduation rate has improved by 10 percent.

But the job is far from over. Nearly half of the city’s 300,000 high school students are still in large schools. And if any of those change, it won’t be under Chancellor Klein. He’s resigned, effective January 1.