Choking the Big Schools
January 16th, 2008

A powerful column in today’s Times by Samuel Freedman describes a disgraceful situation at Richmond Hill High School in Queens: Packed with more than twice the intended number of students, classes in aging, sometimes, decrepit trailers, jerry-rigged schedules in a desperate attempt to accommodate some 3,600 teenagers.

Who decides to treat people this way? Brian Sutton, a dean and special education teacher at Richmond Hill asks Freedman. You dont build a school for 1,800 students and stick nearly 4,000 in it. Why? Who would want to do something like that to other human beings? On purpose.

The answer: Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

Or, as Freedman puts it, “The problem is the outcome of Department of Education decisions to open scores of small, niched schools in the area, close large ones perceived as academic failures and leave the excess students to land in traditional schools like Richmond Hill . In this version of education reform, it is never hard to tell the winners from the losers.”

As sad as the situation at Richmond Hill is, it is neither new nor unprecedented. Three years ago, the Times’ David Herszenhorn
on a similar situation at A. Philip Randolph high school in Manhattan.

While it was recognized for its strong academic record in 2003, by 2005 Randolph was overcrowded. Over that period, Herszenhorn wrote, “Misbehavior and violence have surged; suspensions have more than tripled. …The once rigorous academic program is fading, with cuts in honors classes and electives.” Looking for the cause Herszenhorn cited, “the fallout from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to overhaul the school system and create new small high schools. Typically, a big school that might have housed 600 to 1,000 ninth graders is being replaced by four schools with no more than 108 students each, sending hundreds of students spilling into the remaining b schools.”

Given that record, it’s hardly surprising that there is a sense of foreboding at Beach Channel High School in Far Rockaway, according to Education Notes Online. With nearby schools, especially Far Rockaway High School closing, the blog says, “BCHS is preparing for an influx of ninth graders next year,” particularly English language learners and special ed students who probably will not be accepted by the new small schools. Complicating the pictures are “rivalries between students at the two schools.” So, the blog asks, “Will the DOE provide an increase in resources to BCHS to handle the influx? Or will the DOE squeeze the school to force it into a closing of its own?”

Throughout his tenure, Klein has shown little concern for larger high schools — except when he plans to shut them. In Education Notes on Line, Patrick Sullivan the Manhattan representative on the Panel for Education Policy, says he had asked Klein about Francis Lewis High School in Queens, which according to Sullivan, “sounds much like Richmond Hill in the article.” Klein reportedly said the problem at Francis Lewis exists “because too many parents wanted their kids to go to these schools.” At a meeting a few years ago, I heard Klein respond similarly to people worried about severe overcrowding at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton High School. “They’re voting with their feet,” he said happily.”

Klein and Bloomberg — along with the Gates Foundation and others — have a lot invested in small schools. Remember the glossy paid newspaper supplements urging kids to select one of the small schools? The ad campaign touting — somewhat disingenuously — the achievements of the small schools. The larger schools remain, often neglected but nonetheless continuing to try to educate most New York City kids.

“Its all about clout and resources,” concludes Mike Klonsky’s Small Talk. “If you want to have a good school, get political support from the powers that be and lots of money. Thats the problem with the majority of you city schools, teachers, students and parents you have neither.”

By on January 16, 2008, 5:21 pm
In category: Education,Gotham City | 3 Comments »

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3 Responses to “Choking the Big Schools”

  1. Larry Littlefield Says:
    January 17th, 2008 at 9:30 am

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, most of those now in high school were on the wrong end of a devastatingly inequitable education resource policy in the 1990s, when they were in grade school and middle school.

    So by the time Bloomberg and Klein came along, they were far behind. So, without saying so, Bloomberg and Klein triaged them. Their goal was to create a viable education system for those just entering school, improving first elementary schools, then middle schools, and finally high schools.

    The idea is that the new, smaller schools will be there when the children who actually have a chance age into them. The goal is to dispose of the older cohorts.

    Is this the right decision? Someone should at least admit to those children that is what the decision has been, beginning in the early 1990s recession.

  2. gail Says:
    January 17th, 2008 at 11:51 am

    Obviously there’s a lot to what you say, Larry. But I have never seen any plan that envisions replacing all the large high schools with small ones. Even if that was desirable — and we should remember some kids have good reasons for preferring a larger school — it would be almost impossible to implement. So, even when (and if) high schools start to get better prepared kids, the big high schools will still be needed.

    Given that, it seems clear the city needs to put more resources into those big schools — even if they’re not fashionable and there’s no Gates money for them.

  3. Larry Littlefield Says:
    January 17th, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    Remember the demographics. At the time funding for the city’s schools was cut in the 1990s, you had a big enrollment increase as the baby boom echo generation (children of the baby boomers) and the children of immigrants entered schools.

    Suburban and upstate schools, already over-funded, got more resources to offset this. The city did not. A crowding crisis has since passed from the elemenatary schools to middle schools to high schools (also undersized because of the assumption most would drop out).

    The same factor affected the nationwide teacher shortage in the decade. Enrollments were rising, but college graduates were scarce as the “baby bust” generation exited college. Meanwhile, teachers hired before the “baby bust, the last time enrollments were high, were retiring. The result was a crunch.

    Taxes collected in NYC allowed the suburbs to outbid NYC for available teachers. NYC kids go a series of rookie and uncertified teachers, sometimes several in a year. The better the economy got (late in the decade), the worse NYC teachers got.

    Smaller cohorts with the “baby bust” generation in school has since taken the pressure off elementary schools. If new high schools eventually come on line, there will be much less crowding when that smaller group gets there.

    The baby boom echo generation, moreover, will be exiting college, perhaps making it easier to hire (especially in a recession).

    But by then the screwed generation will be gone. And paying taxes (if they can work) so others (particularly outside the city) get a luxury education when they had been denied the basics. No one talks about that.

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