Closure of Big Failing Schools in NYC is Working – Or is it?

Bronx’s Stevenson High School and its 3,000 students were in New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg’s eyes what was wrong with public education in NYC. The building that housed the students was constantly under threat from gang violence, had low graduation rates, a high dropout rate and was generally one of the worst-performing campuses in the city. Changing the way schools like Stevenson operated was the cornerstone of Bloomberg’s reform strategy.

After 2002, Stevenson as it once existed was no more. In its place there were 9 separate schools, each offering a more individualized educational experience and providing more support to its students to keep them on the path to graduation and future success.

Of the 337 new high schools that have opened, nine are in what is now called the Stevenson Campus, the most under one roof anywhere in the city. They are identified in their hallways by the color of their door frames, and by flags, like those of Renaissance city-states. Each school has its own vision of utopia, from video game design classes at the new Bronx Compass to college-level discussions of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Millennium Art Academy. Success varies wildly from floor to floor.

It’s hard to look at the statistics and argue that Stevenson kids have been done wrong by the change. The graduation rate among the students learning on the former Stevenson campus is nearly 60%.

All the usual metrics are up as well. Attendance is up from 75% to 81%, and the crime rate is down by more than 60% since the 2004-05 academic year.

Standardized test scores, however, are less optimistic. SAT results have stagnated as have scores in U.S History. The English Regents scores, however, have improved since 10 years ago.

Yet on the most important of metrics it seems no progress has been made at all. Students enrolled in Stevenson campus schools continue to be woefully underprepared for college come graduation. Fewer than 3% were ready for college-level work after high school – a number that is bad even when compared to the not-particularly-impressive city-wide average of 20%.

Rick Ouimet, 37, a popular English teacher at Millennium who began his career in 1998 at Stevenson, wrestles with whether small schools are the better path. “Is the educational quality necessarily higher?” he asked.

Millennium received five consecutive A’s from the city, until the 2011-12 school year, when it got a B. To Mr. Ouimet, the opening and closing of schools “symbolizes how with all the change, things really haven’t changed that much.”