December 21, 2010
At the heart of the city’s major courtroom loss to the union earlier this year over school closures were 19 short documents — the “educational impact statements” that the city used to make its case for shuttering schools.
Now, the city has given those documents a makeover. But a review of last year’s and this year’s versions of the EIS for one school — Beach Channel High School in Rockaway, Queens — shows that while the reinvented statements are vastly more informative, they still skirt many of the points cited by critics opposed to closing the schools.
When a panel of judges blocked the closures last year, they acknowledged that the law gives city officials little guidance on what to include in the documents but does give them the discretion to close schools they believe are failing. But, as a panel of appellate court judges wrote, officials “abused that discretion by limiting the information they provided to the obvious — that students at phased-out schools would be accommodated at other schools to be determined.”
The revamped documents are city officials’ effort to cover their bases and go beyond “the obvious.” It’s still unclear how critics of last year’s process will greet the new statements. Union officials have said that they intend to pay close attention to how this year’s school closures unfold and possibly lobby Albany to change the process altogether.
The new format for the statements was finalized in October, when the Panel for Educational Policy approved changes to the city guidelines for the documents. At that time, the city released a template for the new statements. Now, the city has begun to release the statements for individual schools it wants to close.
The impact statement for the proposal to close Beach Channel has ballooned from barely nine pages last year to 31 pages. Here are two big questions the statements are intended to answer, and how city officials addressed them this year and last:
What will happen to the students who currently attend the school?
The new statement answers many questions about the school closure process that the previous iteration never even raised. For example:
— What happens to students who fall behind in their credits and thus remain “ninth-graders” after the school no longer serves ninth grade? (They will stay at the school and continue to take classes there. If they don’t have enough credits to graduate when the school finally closes its doors, they will be referred to one of the city’s programs for students older than 18.)
— What happens to the extracurricular activities and electives currently offered to students at the school? (They will begin to disappear, though city officials write that the decisions about exactly which activities and classes are cut will rest with the school.)
— What happens to the program for high school-age parents that is housed at Beach Channel? (It will stay in the building; city officials say the program will operate as long as there is demand.)
But the city also makes some questionable claims about how the school will serve its students as it phases out. One example: “As the school becomes smaller, students would receive more individualized attention through graduation to ensure they are receiving the support they need to succeed,” the statement says. But as the number of students at the school — and its budget — falls, the school will also lose teaching positions, making it unlikely that the staff to student ratio will increase.
What will happen to future students who might have attended the school?
Here, too, the new proposals offer far more detail than last year, but stop short of the thorough, far-reaching analysis some critics of last year’s statements hoped for.
Last year, one of the most commonly heard objections from parents was that the closure of the Rockaway’s last large high school would force students to leave the peninsula and attend schools much further away.
Only 9 percent of students residing in Beach Channel’s zone attend school there, the proposals note, whereas nearly half of the students at the new schools phasing into the building are from the neighborhood zone. City officials argue that the opening of better schools on the Beach Channel campus will benefit neighborhood students.
But after Beach Channel has closed its doors for good, there will be fewer total school seats in the neighborhood, something the proposal only obliquely acknowledges. The city’s enrollment projections for the schools in Beach Channel’s building the year after the school closes for good show seats for between 200 and 400 fewer students than currently attend the four schools in the building now.
So though the city says demand will rise, the supply is also shrinking. City officials note that when Beach Channel is closed for good and the new school is fully phased-in, the building will still only be half-full. If demand for seats in Rockaway grows, the proposal states, new schools may be opened.
The city also argues that, from a borough-wide perspective, it is replacing the seats lost by phasing out both Beach Channel and Jamaica High Schools with the new schools it plans to phase in. Those two schools currently serve 218 ninth-graders; the two new schools the city is planning to open in their buildings will open with a total of 220 new seats.
But both Beach Channel and Jamaica began this year with dramatically smaller ninth-grade classes than usual after a very complicated high school admissions process that took place while the schools’ fates hung on the outcome of a lawsuit.
When the city released a draft of the templates for the new statements, Leonie Haimson of the group Class Size Matters suggested that the city include an analysis of how many students in the area currently attend an overcrowded school and projections of how the school closings would affect those numbers in five years.
The new proposals list the other Queens high schools that have programs in the same specialized interest areas as Beach Channel’s. The lists of options the city provides include other schools the city is planning to phase out, such as Jamaica.
And most of the options are in other Queens schools that are already notoriously overcrowded. For example, of the 10 schools listed as having a business program, only Beach Channel and Jamaica are in buildings that are under 90 percent utilized; seven of the 10 are in buildings over 100 percent utilized.
UPDATE: This post has been updated to clarify city officials’ plans for adding seats in the Beach Channel building.