Questioning Turnaround at Lehman High School in the Bronx

Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx is scheduled for turnaround in Sept. 2012. Many teachers and education specialists blame the school's performance on a recent history of budget cuts and overcrowding. Flickr/Claire Lambrecht

“They’ve cut our budget six years in a row, they’ve changed the principal three times over the last five years, they’ve instituted [security] scanning, they’ve changed APs, they’ve fired school aids and then we’re overcrowded — we’re taking a lot of the kids [such as special needs students] who are underrepresented in charter schools, because we’re one of the last big comprehensive schools left — and they want to know, why are you failing? Why is Lehman failing?” asks James McSherry in a new radio documentary “Neighborhood Schools: The Fight for the Future of American Public Education,” by reporter Jaisal Noor for Free Speech Radio News.



Jaisal Noor took a closer look at recent school closures in the New York City and Chicago school districts. His New York City coverage focuses heavily on Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx. Audio courtesy of Free Speech Radio News.

Lehman writing and film teacher James McSherry attended the school from 1976 to 1980. Flickr/MonsterButton

McSherry, 50, graduated from Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx, near where he grew up. Since 1990, the author and filmmaker has taught writing and film at the school. But he might not be there this September, after the Department of Education replaces the principal and half of the school’s staff and reopens the school under a new name, Throggs Neck High School.

Lehman is one of 24 New York City public high schools undergoing the federal turnaround strategy in 2012. Under a program created in 2009, a school that has consistently produced low standardized test scores and high dropout rates can qualify for millions of dollars in federal improvement grants. To get these grants, the schools must undergo massive staff replacements, name changes and agree to oversight by a nonprofit board.

In January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed closing and turning around 33 schools. In April, the city’s Panel for Educational Policy voted on the closures and approved 24 of them. Twenty-two other schools are being permanently phased out, and 30 entirely new schools — mostly smaller institutions and charter schools — will be added this year.

“If you look at how this has worked over the last eight years, we’ve seen schools that were graduating 30, 40, 50 percent of their kids move to graduating 80 percent of their kids,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, chief academic officer for the Department of Education.

Before the Panel for Education Policy vote in April, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott told WNYC that school closure is designed to help districts “aggressively accelerate reforms.”

While many turnaround schools have shown tremendous improvements in retention rates, turnaround is actually one of four different strategies that allow schools to receive improvement grants. As NY1 reported in April, no New York City school is still working under the same plan, turnaround or otherwise, that it started with, since 2010.

Since taking office in 2002, Mayor Bloomberg has closed over 100 schools in New York City. In most cases the turnaround model was not used, but instead, they were generally broken up into smaller schools, often charters.

If you look at how this has worked over the last eight years, we’ve seen schools that were graduating 30, 40, 50 percent of their kids move to graduating 80 percent of their kids.

Yet many teachers, like McSherry, and education specialists have pointed to the rapid creation and focus on new charter schools in the city as having had a negative impact on the funding and size of very large schools, particularly one like Lehman with a high population of low-income and special needs students.

“What it essentially led to is a hugely unfair and overwhelming situation for the large schools, which were doing the best they could with what they had, and were already underfunded and already overcrowded. And this led to a lot of schools, like Lehman, which had one of the better reputations in the Bronx for many years, to sort of crash and burn,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters.

As Inside Schools reported, Lehman was considered a “safe” and “sophisticated” school in 2002. But between 2001 and 2003, 500 new students were added to the school, many of whom were special needs students brought in from recently closed schools, when the smaller replacement schools did not have the resources to support those students’ particular issues. In 2003, Renaissance High School for Musical Theater and Technology was added to Lehman’s campus, which will be joined by Westchester Academy next fall. Today, Lehman has a dropout rate of 50 percent.

Administrative problems really started brewing in 2008 when veteran principal Robert Leder was forced to resign after he illegally paid overtime to football coaches. Things got worse in 2011, when his replacement was fudging students’ grades, and was replaced herself, reported the New York Times.

One special needs teacher at Lehman, who asked that her name not be used, told MetroFocus that she believes the problem is, “We’ve got too many kids in a building that falls apart. When the building originally opened in the 1970s it held under 2,000 students. Now it is double that [3,593 according to Inside Schools].”

That same teacher said she worries that with the turnaround process,  it will be very difficult to plan educational programming for next year, since she doesn’t know which teachers will still be around or how much money will be available.

“Sometimes the reformers don’t understand how big and complicated this system is,” she added.

Currently, the teachers union is suing the Department of Education to halt the school closures, and arbitration is likely to be wrapped up by the end of June at the latest, reported Gotham Schools.

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