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Why Good High Schools Go Bad

It's always sad to read about high schools that were once known for academic excellence turn into high schools that are associated with academic failure.  I was reminded of this by the situation at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City ("After Closing Troubled Schools, a Principal Fights to Save a Bronx High School," The New York Times, Nov. 26). The story of the decline there serves as a cautionary tale about unrealistic expectations.

In its heyday, Clinton enrolled nearly 5,000 students, many of whom went on to make a name for themselves in the arts, business and sports. But a series of changes beyond the control of teachers resulted in a decline in enrollment to 2,200 and its designation as an "impact" school (meaning that Clinton has a high enough rate of incidents to require safety officers and metal detectors). Clinton's reputation has understandably been a deterrent for recruiting good teachers. This vicious cycle is extremely hard to break, despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators.

Clinton's plight was exacerbated by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's  policy of opening new small schools that were not required to enroll hard-to-teach students.  As a result, Clinton and other large high schools became the schools of last resort.  Increasingly populated by difficult students, overall performances plummeted.  

Reformers argue that if charter schools are able to do an impressive job with previously failing students, then why can't traditional public schools? The answer is that charter schools play by an entirely different set of rules.  Parents actively choose to enroll their children there and are required to participate in the educational process.  Moreover, students who do not measure up after repeated warnings are often pushed out. Comparing the performance of districts where charter- school enrollment is highest with the performance of districts where charter-school enrollment is lowest does not control for the importance of parental involvement  ("The Charter-School Windfall for Public Schools," The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 29).

I don't believe that even the best teachers can consistently overcome the chaotic backgrounds and subsequent deficits that characterize these students. Yes, there will always be a few outliers that the media spotlight.  But occasional exceptions do not disprove the general rule.  It will be interesting to learn how many of New York City's eighth-graders, who have until Dec. 2 to list their choices for high school, opt for Clinton. My prediction will be few. The three consecutive "F" grades that Clinton received, coupled with the 54.6 percent four-year graduation rate, will see to that.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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