I walked into the principal’s conference room on February 28, 2005 along with the dozen or so members of the State Education Department appointed Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) team. The High School for Graphics and Communication Arts (GCA), formerly known as the High for Printing had been identified by the SED as a SURR school – meaning the school had low student achievement and was moving in the wrong direction, in other words, bad and getting worse.
The Team is led by a Regional Superintendent (RS), all of whom have served as teachers, principals and superintendents before being elevated to an RS. The remainder of the Team members: superintendents principal(s), subject area specialists, a SED liaison, all from upstate, and. a NYC principal, a teacher representative, a DOE representative and a parent representative (usually from a parent advocacy organization).
The SED provides the Team with a 32-page guide and reams of reports about the school.
Before even getting to the school the data was depressing:
861 ninth graders
718 tenth graders
366 eleventh graders
51 twelfth graders
Fifteen percent of the school was Special Education and fourteen percent English Language Learners.
The principal was in his second year at the school had lengthy service, from teacher to assistant principal and although he had given about ten teachers unsatisfactory ratings the previous year he seemed well-liked by the staff, students and parents.
Only fourteen percent of the entering ninth and tenth grader entered the school meeting state standards in mathematics, less than half of the city average.
The Team observed 91 classrooms and conducted 113 interviews, from kids to teachers to supervisors to parents to the non-pedagogical staff to the school safety officers to the NYPD.
The Exit Report was read to the entire staff on the fourth day of the visit. The SED requires that the Report is in a “Findings and Recommendations” format with “Strengths and Weakness” noted in each area.
The school had re-formed into semi-autonomous academies in the ninth grade with a plan to grow out into a full academy structure. The academies: Photography, Journalism, Visual Arts, Print Media and Law Enforcement – themes only vaguely related to the name of the school, themes lacking any CTE-link to industry, and, most distressing no apparent interest by Central to provide significant funding to support the conversion to the academy structure.
The union rep and the principal had a close working relationship, the Coordinator of Student Affairs (COSA) seemed fully engaged with the kids, and in spite of a few positives I was not hopeful. Would the Department fully support the school? With dollars, with training, with external guidance supports, with attracting a more engaged student body?
Seven years later a Gotham Schools investigative report is devastating. The twenty-five comments, many from staff members are sharply critical of the current school leadership.
A new principal with limited experience as a teacher and supervisor is unable to program kids correctly. Constantly disruptive program changes, extreme animosity from staff to principal, from kids to principal and from parents to principal, a school on the abyss.
The Department has allowed a school in trouble to crumble; in fact it appears they are culpable for the school’s failures.
GCA is part of a long list of schools, including CTE schools that have closed or are on the road to closing.
The larger question is: can failing/stumbling/schools at risk, whatever the terminology, be fixed?
Diane Ravitch points us to Andy “ … Smarick’s new book; … argues that urban school systems are so broken that they should be eliminated and replaced by charters, lots and lots of charters. In a previous article in the conservative journal Education Next, Smarick argued that “turnarounds” are a waste of time because broken schools can’t be fixed; they must be closed, abandoned and replaced by charters. The article was called “The Turnaround Fallacy,” and the subtitle was “Stop trying to fix failing schools. Close them and start fresh.”
While Smarick’s screed is abhorrent to urban teachers, and, there is not a scintilla of evidence to support the premise that charters will be any more effective although it has been attractive to foundations and privateers and some electeds. That quick fix concept – move public schools to the private sector – the equivalent of off-shoring industries.
The school turnaround business is alive and well: from Mass Insight
to WestEd, a California think tank, organizations have developed research-based models of school change/turnaround.
Take a look at the WestEd model - it is based on the writings of Malcolm Gladwell. the Tipping Point maven.
The tools for attempting to turnaround schools exists, it is difficult work, and it requires collaboration and support, the school district, the principal, the union, teachers and parents as well as the community.
Graphics was abandoned.
The Department, by plan or incompetence allowed Graphics to stumble from year to year. To allow a zoning pattern that allows a third of the school to be children with special needs: Special Education and English Language Learners, 85% of an entering class below standard in mathematics is either ineptitude or designing a school to fail.
Some schools, in spite of all the assistance in the world do not have the capacity to turnaround, principals and teachers do not have the skills necessary improve the school.
I don’t know enough about Graphics to comment on their capacity to change. From my visit seven years ago until today it appears that the school district has not embedded the structures required to change the direction of the school.
We need a collaborative strategy, led by the mayor, to convert and create schools tied to jobs – not to jobs of the past as is the case in so many CTE schools – schools linked to higher education institutions and to the corporations that drive our economy.
Graphics is a sad example of the failure to address both education and the future economy of the city.