Is Forty Years Long Enough to Improve a New York City School?

Chalkbeat reports on the status of 150 New York public schools, including 62 in New York City, that have been identified as the worst in the state. A new state law championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo requires that these schools” have to rapidly show signs of progress and those that don’t could be turned over to outside managers that can sidestep union rules or be converted into charter schools.” Commissioner MaryEllen Elia originally backed this receivership model, bit she just qualified her position, saying that the schools need more time and more money.

These schools, Chalkbeat notes, "disproportionately serve poor black and Hispanic students and some have struggled for nearly a decade or more.”

Actually, some have struggled for nearly half a century.

I know this because one of those 62 worst-performing NYC schools is Martin Van Buren High School, part of District 26 in Queens. This would have been my high school but I lucked out: my parents had enough money to exercise school choice and  move me and my sisters from Martin Van Buren’s catchment area to a different, far better, public school district.

This was forty years ago.

Even back in my day Martin Van Buren was plagued by poor student outcomes and unsafe conditions. Now, according to NYC DOE data, 16% of students graduate college-ready and 39% don’t graduate at all. Half the students don’t feel safe in the hallways, locker rooms, or bathrooms. The school has failed to reach even a single target metric.

So we come back, once again, to the age-old question: does school improvement depend on "more time and more money," the approach backed by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, school chief Carmen Farina, and (less ardently) Commissioner Elia? Or does school improvement depend on adequate funding but also new approaches that include freedom from bureaucratic constraints?

Anyway, I'm not sure this is about money. The Legislature just allocated $75 million to twenty of those lowest-performing schools and there’s another $400 million available for NYC’s 100 lowest-performing schools. New York City currently spends $20,331 per pupil per year, the second highest in the country. (Boston, #1, spends $300 more per year.)

How about time? That’s certainly the approach touted by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and his Chancellor Farina, and the basis for their argument that NYC should be under long-term mayoral control.

How's that working?

Chalkbeat includes a comment made by Farina during a legislative hearing Wednesday, who boasted that “the percentage of students in Renewal Schools who missed at least a month of school, or who were chronically absent, dropped from 25 percent to 24 percent last year.”

That rate of progress was not good enough for the students who attended Martin Van Buren 40 years ago and it's not good enough for the ones who attend today. We need a little less politicking and a little more urgency for children consigned to failing schools.

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