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12th October

First Published in The New York Sun, October 12, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

On Wednesday a dispatch came from Cleveland with the disturbing news of another incident of a troubled student coming to school with firearms and turning those weapons on his classmates and teachers.

The youngster, 14-year-old Asa Coon, a freshman who was under suspension, arrived at school in the early afternoon with two handguns, went up two flights of stairs to a crowded hallway, and opened fire. Two students and two teachers were injured before the young man fatally turned a gun on himself. His victims are expected to survive. One, a female student, was injured not by the bullets, but was trampled by panicked students.

The incident took place at the SuccessTech Academy in downtown Cleveland. What makes this incident somewhat interesting to those of us who follow the educational scene is that SuccessTech is one of the small high schools established with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The idea behind the small high schools was to create an intimate atmosphere so that no student would “slip through the cracks.” SuccessTech has but 250 students, small even by small school standards. How did things go so wrong in Cleveland?

Hundreds of these small high schools have been opened here and dozens more are being created each year.

The goal is to shut down almost all of the old large schools, some of which have long histories of successfully educating generations of New Yorkers. While the programs put forth by the administration are popular among the editorial boards and business types, polls indicate that parents are less impressed.

The Fund for New York City Public Schools, a charitable group run by the Chancellor that once raised money to buy things to enhance the education of our public school children, is now spending millions on television commercials to convince the public that the programs are working.

One of these commercials, highlighting “progress” at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, has drawn particular attention on the growing network of blogs that critique the conditions in city schools.

Situated in the Wakefield section of the northeast Bronx, Evander was once a school that successfully educated tens of thousands of Bronx pupils. But in recent years it has been one of the City’s most troubled and dangerous high schools.

Evander was the first school in the city to install metal detectors and was among the first to be broken up into the “intimate” mini high schools. It has been visited by Chancellor Klein, who has used the building as a backdrop for press events touting his small schools program.

It is true that the small schools now in the building are doing way better that the large, old, and dangerous Evander Childs High. That is the point of the commercial, which closes with the tag line, “the building may be the same, but the school is very different.”

The blogger Eduwonkette asks, “should we be cheering? The answer is a resounding ‘no.’ The building is the same, but the students definitely aren’t.”

She then proceeds with a careful and convincing analysis of data taken from public sources, particularly the school report cards of Evander and the five new schools that are replacing it. The results are clear. “On every dimension, the Evander incoming ninth-graders are lagging behind academically - they are more likely to be in special education or to be classified as English Language Learners, they are much more likely to be overage for their grade (i.e., they had been retained before), their attendance rates in junior high school were much lower, and they were much less likely to be proficient in reading and math.”

In other words, the decks were stacked against the venerable old school.

As the small schools were opened, the press was quick to praise. In August of 2005, the New York Times highlighted the “success” of one, Bronx Lab.

Eduwonkette took a closer look at Bronx Lab’s data, noting that “46.6% of their kids were proficient in reading and 52.7% in math when they walked in the door, while Evander’s entering students passed at rates of only 11.1% in reading and 12.8% in math.”

This analysis was mirrored by another blogster, Leo Casey, writing in EdWize, a blog sponsored by the United Federation of Teachers. He found the same patterns at other New York City schools split up in the same way as Evander.

The lesson is that some careful, independent analysis is needed before more public funds are expended on a small school initiative. That might be a better investment for the charitable arm of the school system than the television commercial.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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