“Dear Chancellor Walcott”: A Response to the Defense of the Portfolio Strategy (A Hint: It Really Hasn’t Been Working)

Dear Chancellor Walcott:

I read the text of your testimony before the Education Committee of the New York City Council with interest.

In the waning days of the administration I find your retrospective lacking.

The Board of Education closed the first high school in the late eighties and with the creation of the Chancellor’s High School District the closings accelerated. The $54 million of Gates dollars in collaboration with a not-for-profit, New Visions for Public Schools created a school creation model. The Gates dollars supported a community partner.

After the Department announced the closing of Thomas Jefferson a request for proposal (RFP) resulted, about two dozen organizations attended a series of workshops assisting the applicants. Six applicants received planning grants and four proposals were accepted. The process included the entire community. At Taft we created a small high school with a Medical Science theme envvisioned to work with Bronx Lebanon Hospital located a few blocks from the school.

The philosophy: schools must be well-integrated into their neighborhoods, a philosophy you have abandoned.

Unfortunately the current guys, the portfolio people, abandoned community engagement.

You argue, 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 …

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 Seward Park, it was 36 percent … These were disastrous situations, and I could cite a dozen more..

Erasmus closed in the early nineties; the 32% graduation rate must be the total of all the small schools? I don’t know.

I served on the SURR Review Teams for the other schools, a four-day in depth review of every aspect of the school.

Wingate had an excellent caring, dedicated staff and grossly inept school leadership. It was disgraceful, two weeks into the term the programming was a disaster. Why didn’t the department replace the leadership?

Park West wrote a grant and used the money to buy the Johns Hopkins Talent Development Model, a highly regarded turnaround model. The SURR Team Leader wrote an exemplary report – you guys are doing everything right! Too bad, the Department closed the school.

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.
In some schools the dysfunction was so severe that closing was welcome – others could have benefited from the assignment of new, competent leadership.

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.

You guys select the leaders, select leaders who can lead a school, no one is asking you to recycle failed leadership.

But when a school continues to fail its students after receiving additional support, we cannot 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.

While I totally agree that students only have one shot – are the approaches “repeatedly succeeding”?

The unregulated college recovery – sit in front of a computer terminal for a few hours and earn credits, mark your own kids’ papers, the Department knew that graduation rates were inflated due to morally corrupt practices.

In the just-released State Education Department (SED) report over 50% of students entering two-year colleges require remediation across the state.
Using the College and Career Readiness metric (grades of 75 on the English Regents and 80 on the Algebra Regents) the readiness rates are:

Blacks: 12.5%
Hispanics: 15.7%
English language learners: 7.3%
Students with disabilities: 4.9%

You proudly acclaim, 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.

Chancellor Walcott, the results are not encouraging. Of the 12.5% of Blacks who are College and Career Ready how many are Afro-American males? I suspect in the single digits. How can you gloat when fewer than 10% of Afro-American male “graduate” from high school prepared? What does a diploma mean? And, how many of these students ever complete college? What is the six-year college drop-out rate? We both know it approaches 90%

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.

Yes, we have been closing schools for twenty-five years and your administration dramatically accelerated the closings. In no way would I defend the Taft’s or the Theodore Roosevelt’s. I worry that we fudge data rather than admit that we have a long way to go – a very long way.

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.

As you are well aware the majority of parents do not support your policies. Every closing public engagement meeting is crowded with angry parents objecting to the latest school closing or co-location. Rejecting neighborhoods and establishing a system that abjures neighborhood schools is arrogant.

I would hope the new guys/gals will be sensitive to communities, will establish policies to build communities, to coordinate services. To quote Hillary Clinton, “It takes a village ….,” (not a bus pass).


3 responses to ““Dear Chancellor Walcott”: A Response to the Defense of the Portfolio Strategy (A Hint: It Really Hasn’t Been Working)

  1. Carole Silverstein.

    This blog was right on!


  2. Eric Nadelstern

    My recollection is that the Chancellors District was created under the Crew Administration in the mid-90s. Prior to that in the early 90s, a consorium of progressive not-for-profits, using Annenberg funding, replaced the failed large school at Julia Richman HS with a campus community of new small schools. The schools on that campus continue to thrive, more than doubling Richman’s abysmal graduation rate. That successful experiment became the blueprint for future school transformations.

    There’s no denying that from the mid-50s until 2003, the high school graduation rate in NYC had been frozen at 50%. Today’s 65% grad rate represents a 30% inclrease. More importantly, it points to the tens of thousands of additional students whose lives have been improved as a result.

    You’re correct, however, that students need to be better prepared for postsecondary study. Additionally, the 35% of the students who are still not graduating are largely male, African Americans and Latinos. The really hard work awaits New York’s next Chancellor.


  3. I’d be careful about referencing any kind of positive footnote to the Rudy Crew Chancellorship. He of course made the findings of his “Efficacy”group the centerpiece of his mantra.To wit: There are too many white teachers in minority schools!


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