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13th May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 13, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

New York’s high school problem was put into focus this past Monday in Newsweek, which features their annual listing of the nation’s 100 best high schools. None was from New York City. In fact, one needed to visit the Newsweek Web site and check the list all the way down to number 471 — Benjamin Cardozo High School in Bayside — to encounter a New York City public school.

Newsweek calculates the best schools by a formula that enrages the anti-testing crowd but appears to predict academic success.They take the number of Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate tests taken by all students at a school and divide by the number of graduating seniors. Schools with special admissions standards, such as Stuyvesant and the Bronx High School of Science, are not eligible for this list.
AP courses and the less common IB courses are the gold standard of high school coursework.While a handful of elite private schools, including the Fieldston School here in the Bronx, have abandoned AP courses in favor of their own electives, the number of AP courses taken by students and the number offered by a school are increasingly important indicators to college admissions officers. It is a uniform standard of content and performance that is impervious to criticism. In an age of grade inflation and college essays that often are edited by a small army of adults before making their way into the admissions package, this is increasingly important.

An AP physics course is the same in Alaska and in Alabama.The test is the same.This is the private enterprise fix for the 18th-century constitutional mistake of allowing education to be run by the individual states.

Nineteen New York state schools did make the top 100, most in New York City’s suburbs. But dozens of the city’s neighborhood high schools once viewed as among the best anywhere, are now in disarray, and many are being disassembled.

All of these problems, well known to us all and discussed in this space frequently, are not new. The high school crisis long predates mayoral control of the education system. But the solutions advanced by the Bloomberg administration will actually bring us further away from ever seeing an ordinary New York City school on this list. The small, themed high schools, even in the rare cases where they succeed, will never have the critical mass of students necessary to ever offer a wide choice of AP or IB courses, if any.
William Gates of the Microsoft Corporation, who has funded some of these schools, jokes that the small schools he favors “really messes up the football team.” That is true. They also mess up the biology club and the Young Democrats and Young Republicans and the astronomy club and the ability in many schools to offer any AP courses. These are all driven by the simple concept of critical mass, the ability to assemble enough students to pursue the many diverging interests of young adults.That is the reason why high schools are deliberately designed to be larger than elementary schools.

The mayor and Schools Chancellor Klein have put all their eggs in Mr. Gates’s basket. There is a better way, but it is one we have foolishly resisted and undermined. It is the neighborhood high school.

For years, parents on the Upper East Side of Manhattan have tried, and failed, to establish such a school in their neighborhood. Every time they win a new school, and they have actually won twice, the forces of political correctness snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The latest outrage is the new Eleanor Roosevelt High School on the Upper East Side, but no local child from that neighborhood is assured a place.This school covers all of District 2, which meanders from the site of ground zero to the border of East Harlem.Admission is by lottery and can and does include students from outside of District 2 who were cherry-picked from all over the city to artificially pump up scores at schools like East Side Middle.

So a child living next door to the school on East 76th Street may not “win” the lottery, but a child “imported” into District 2 from Riverdale or Howard Beach might. They both have the same chance of success in winning a place in what should be the local school for the children of the immediate community. Few parents are willing to bet their kids’ academic future on a lottery. Instead, they invest in the reality of private schools or a move to the suburbs.

If we would allow neighborhood schools of reasonable size to grow and prosper organically in all of our communities, we might turn the situation around. I have little doubt that a city with as many wonderful neighborhoods as New York would land a few schools on anyone’s top 100 list.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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