Career-tech school tries to improve

Students at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School work on a car as part of the automotive program at the school.Students at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School work on a car as part of the automotive program. Photo: Jessica Glazer

Two years ago, a low-performing vocational high school in the Bronx escaped closure. Under a new principal, attendance and morale have improved, reports Chalkbeat New York. But enrollment is way down at Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical High.  Test scores and graduation rates remain low.

Principal Evan Schwartz hopes to reach a “90 percent attendance, 80 percent of first-year students earning 10 or more credits, and a 70 percent four-year graduation rate” this year.

Smith has been known for its attendance problems — Schwartz said that in years past, you couldn’t tell when the day ended because students trickled in and out of the building all day — but last year, the attendance rate increased to 83 percent, according to his estimates. (Official numbers for last year are not yet available.) That’s up from 73 percent in 2011-12.

Graduation rates have been more stubborn. In 2012-13, Smith graduated just 51 percent of its students in four years, according to the city progress report, including August graduates. Last year, 61 percent of students graduated, Schwartz says.

That increase is likely related to the fact that the school convinced nearly 100 over-aged, under-credited students who attended class intermittently to transfer out of Smith and into transfer schools or more flexible Young Adult Borough Centers.

Last year, Smith opened a “cutting-edge” auto shop. It’s also added some AP classes.

Yet, the school has trouble attracting students. Enrollment is down from 950 three years ago to fewer than 400. And the “transformation grant” is running out.

Charter group: Close low-performing school

A low-performing charter school with university affiliations should be closed, says the California Charter Schools Association. The charter group believes in accountability.

West Sacramento Early College Prep, which is run by University of California at Davis, Sacramento City College and the Washington Unified School District, is one of the worst-performing schools in the statereports the Sacramento Bee

 “I think the school is doing a great job,” said Harold Levine, president of the school’s board and dean of the UC Davis Education School. “I think we are doing what the state of California is asking us to do: develop college-ready kids.”

All students in the first graduating class of 32 went on to university, community college, trade school or the U.S. Marines.

The school serves students in sixth through 12th grade. Many come from low-income families and have emotional problems, according to Levine.  

Levine says students at the school don’t fare well on the state’s standardized tests, known as STAR tests, because they aren’t aligned to “the way we want them to think.” He said the school adopted project-based learning in 2008 that is more closely aligned with the new Common Core State Standards curriculum that California students will begin to be tested for in 2014.

The dean noted that California students are no longer taking STAR tests. He questioned why the charter association is using an “outmoded” measure to decide if a school is performing well academically.

“If anything, the CCSA should look to us and work with us to see what useful reforms can come to California,” Levine said.

The school rates as a 1 out of 10 — the lowest level — compared to schools with similar demographics.

The best and the brightest have no freakin’ idea what they’re doing, responds Darren, who teaches math at a Sacramento high school. But they know how to make excuses.

I’m told that Common Core will boost students’ academic thinking beyond mere regurgitation of facts, that they’ll understand the material on a deeper level. If this school is teaching its students to operate that way, wouldn’t those students perform even better on the STAR tests, which supposedly ask for only a cursory, fill-in-the-blank-style understanding?

I’m no fan of the Common Core standards or of the effort to use them to impose so-called discovery learning or any other educational fad on us, but even CC supporters must concede that using CC standards to excuse and explain low performance is a harsh indictment indeed.

If this school is the best UC Davis eggheads can come up with, “how much confidence should we taxpayers have in that university’s school of education?” asks Darren.

Small schools that recruit disadvantaged students often boost graduation and college enrollment rates by paying attention to students. (Community colleges take anyone and some four-year schools are almost as open.) It’s much harder to raise achievement levels.

SF college will lose accreditation, unless …

City College of San Francisco will lose accreditation in one year — unless a special trustee appointed this week can resolve financial and governance problems. Closure is unlikely, but it’s not clear what entity could take over the multi-campus system, which has 85,000 students.

Why people fight to save bad schools

Can a bad school be good for the neighborhood? asks Andy Smarick on Education Gadfly.

It’s very difficult to “turnaround” a chronically low-performing school, he writes. By contrast, closing a bad school and starting from scratch “can move the quality curve to the right.” That’s his argument in  The Urban School System of the Future.

Furthermore, some arguments for keeping bad schools open are unpersuasive, he writes.

Their “closures-are-a-civil-rights-violation” argument causes most to reply, “It’s a far greater violation to force low-income African American and Latino children to remain in failing, unsafe schools.”

However, it’s not so easy to dismiss the argument that closing a school — even a failing, unsafe school — will destabilize the neighborhood, making things even worse, Smarick writes. It’s clear that “good schools are a powerful asset for troubled neighborhoods.” But “every school, even the lowest-performing, is woven into the fabric of its neighborhood—and tugging on that thread affects the entire cloth.”

Even if educationally dysfunctional, the school likely has its share of caring, educated adults who serve as role models and mentors for needy children.

The school may serve as the community hub for social services or civic activities.

Maybe its athletic teams still serve as a source of community pride.

. . . Maybe the neighborhood sees that school as the last thing that is actually theirs. Other families moved away. Businesses shut down. Churches closed their doors. But their school remains.

In There Are No Children Here Alex Kotlowitz describes how two boys try to survive in a dangerous Chicago housing project. “A government policy developed by mostly benevolent leaders hoping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged—in this case, by razing old, low-income, ostensibly decaying neighborhoods in favor of gigantic public-housing skyscrapers—did incalculable harm to those it was designed to help,” writes Smarick.”Those who cleared Chicago’s ‘slums’ to make way for new high-rise public-housing towers didn’t realize that they were severing intricate, generations-old social bonds.”

15% of charter schools close

Bad charter schools aren’t forever: Fifteen percent of charters opened since 1992 have closed, according to a Center for Education Reform report.

• Of the approximately 6,700 charter schools that have ever opened across the United States, 1,036 have closed since 1992. There are 500 additional charter schools that have been consolidated back into the district or received a charter but were unable to open.

• There are five primary reasons for charter closures – financial (41.7 percent), mismanagement (24 percent), academic (18.6 percent), district obstacles (6.3 percent) and facilities (4.6 percent).

Most charter schools that close do so within the first five years, though academic closures usually take longer.

Traditional public schools rarely close, said Jeanne Allen, president of the center.

The California Charter School Association has called for the closure of 10 low-performing charters in the state.