State Adds to List of N.y.c.'s Low-Performing Schools

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New York state's annual compilation of its lowest-performing schools places nearly 10 percent of New York City's schools at risk of being shut down, prompting criticism that too many city schools are being left behind.

The list, unveiled Nov. 13, showed that while 18 New York City schools on last year's list had improved enough to move off this year's, some 21 new city schools were identified as failing.

The latest tally brings the city's total number of failing schools to 97, out of about 1,100 schools there, the highest number since 1989.

The state will release the names of low-performing schools in the rest of the state--typically only a few--in the coming weeks.

After more than a decade of the state process of identifying failing schools, the city's latest number is way too high, some school groups say.

"There's a problem with the whole process," argued Judith Baum, a spokeswoman for the Public Education Association, a local watchdog group. Officials "wait until schools fall into egregious states of disrepair before they take action," she claimed. "They pay attention to one set of schools, while others, schools we call in the dead zone, fall to the wayside."

Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the local union, echoed that statement.

All the system's schools should have the resources to achieve at high levels, she said.

"I'm talking about smaller classes, intensive teacher coaching and professional development, proven reading programs, and insistence on certified teachers in classrooms," she said last week.

But state and local school officials see the new list in decidedly more positive terms.

State Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills said in an interview that the city's increasing number of low-performing schools--called Schools Under Registration Review, or SURR--is a result of the state's rising standards, not a gauge of the overall success or failure of the 1.1 million-student system or its chancellor, Rudolph F. Crew.

Mr. Mills also noted that the number of city schools removed from this year's list is the highest ever--evidence, he said, that joint efforts to raise academic achievement are working.

"The 18 schools off the list demonstrates the vigor of city and state efforts to improve schools. The city has gotten better and better at turning schools around, even while we raise the bar, making it easier" for schools to be added to the roster, the state chief said.

"No one feels good about the 21 schools added to the list; it's a painful thing. But if [schools] look at the track record, they can anticipate a high probability of success."

Schools falling furthest from state standards on mathematics and reading tests make up the list.

Two years ago, the state singled out schools if fewer than 30 percent of the students met the state standard. Last year, the threshold level rose to 40 percent, and next year standards will rise again.

SURR schools have up to three years to meet performance targets outlined by the state. If they fail to improve, schools could be closed.

11th-Hour Negotiations

Armed with test data, Chancellor Crew had negotiated with Commissioner Mills until the 11th hour on which of the city's schools the state should single out.

Mr. Crew was trying to persuade Mr. Mills that several schools had come close enough to the latest cutoff scores to be spared the public ignominy, said J.D. LaRock, a spokesman for the chancellor.

The back-and-forth prompted the state to delay the list's release by a week. But the education department stuck to its original compilation, according to Mr. Mills.

In a statement, Mr. Crew lauded the schools that had worked their way off the list and promised to "continue to try to ensure that no schools are undeservedly placed on the SURR list."

The release of the SURR list has been an annual fall rite in the state for more than a decade. Because it has become almost routine, observers say there is less of the finger-pointing and hurt feelings associated with newer lists in other states.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group for the nation's largest city school systems, said that with less politicking in New York City schools, state and local officials and teacher groups have been able to work together to focus on student achievement.

"The chancellor is very good at taking side political issues off the table," Mr. Casserly said.

"With less political battles," he added, "there's more time to spend on instruction and raising achievement."

Vol. 18, Issue 13, Page 10

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as State Adds to List of N.y.c.'s Low-Performing Schools
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