The New York City Department of Education's plan to close 19 schools—on top of 75 it has already closed—prompted a legal challenge that led a state judge in March 2010 to put the plan on hold. In an educational impact statement published last December and a response to public comments released in January, DOE states its case for closing one of the targeted schools: Norman Thomas High School on East 33rd Street. Below are excerpts from those documents. To hear the other side of the argument over shuttering versus salvaging schools, click here.

Based on its consistently poor performance, evidence that the school is ill-equipped to turn around, and very low demand, the DOE proposes that Norman Thomas be phased out beginning September 2010. We are proposing to open two new small schools that will have a high capacity to serve English language learners and special education students. In addition, the DOE will work to ensure that the campus continues to offer opportunities for students that are interested in business careers.

The proposal to phase out and eventually close Norman Thomas is based on the Department of Education’s determination that the school lacks the capacity to significantly improve student performance. Norman Thomas received a D on both its 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 Progress Reports.

In 2009, the DOE conducted an assessment of the school’s capacity to improve student performance and, after consultation with internal stakeholders, determined that Norman Thomas had not made significant progress for its students. Due to the school’s failure to make sufficient progress, the DOE now proposes the phase-out of the school.

The graduation rate at Norman Thomas has stagnated at unacceptably low levels with fewer than half of students graduating on schedule. The 2007-2008 graduation rate was 41.7 percent and the 2008-2009 graduation rate rose only slightly to 42.7 percent. This modest growth is hardly sufficient to reverse the school’s longstanding struggles. The six year graduation rate is only 51.6 percent, still below the citywide average four-year graduation rate of 60 percent. The graduation rate at Norman Thomas has been consistently low for years and although a new principal was recently placed in the school, we do not believe that this leadership change is enough to reverse the trend of poor performance that has plagued the school for years.

Under the DOE’s accountability framework, schools that receive an overall grade of D or F on the Progress Report are subject to school improvement measures. If no significant progress is made over time, a leadership change (subject to contractual obligations), restructuring, or closure is possible. The same is true for schools receiving a C for three years in a row and for any school that the Chancellor has determined lacks the necessary capacity to improve student performance, regardless of the school’s Progress Report grades and Quality Review scores.

It is also important to understand that the Department of Education weighs numerous factors when evaluating schools as candidates for closure. Although Progress Report grades and
Quality Review scores contribute significantly to the decision-making process, they are not the only considerations. The Department of Education takes into account many other sources of information as well, including school performance trends, enrollment data, demand data, and evaluations by superintendents and school support staff who work closely with the school and can evaluate its capacity to make significant improvements within a short time span.

The Quality Review evaluates how well schools are organized to improve student learning. The Quality Review measures educator and administrator actions, which are "inputs." It does not measure results, or "outputs," and though it reflects some factors in school success, those are but one set of factors. If administrator actions improve while student progress does not, we still must try to change the outcome. Schools are rated on a four-point scale, with "Well Developed" representing the top category of performance.

But school turnaround is difficult, takes time, and does not always succeed. A score of "Well Developed" might give us confidence that the school has the capacity to rapidly make significant improvements, while a "Proficient" school may only be capable of making incremental gains insufficient to quickly reverse a longstanding history of failure.

Proficient schools possess strengths and weaknesses. In evaluating the Quality Review reports from schools considered for closure, we looked closely at the reviewer's assessment of those strengths and weaknesses to see how they might impact the school's capacity to achieve a dramatic turnaround. For example, at many of the schools proposed for closure, evaluators found that instruction lacked rigor or was not sufficiently differentiated to meet individual student needs—both very serious concerns.

Many of the schools we proposed for closure received "Proficient" ratings on their Quality Reviews, and that is good news for current students who will remain enrolled in the school as it phases out. We expect phase-out schools to continue supporting their students and, in fact, outcomes at phase-out schools have historically improved with each successive year. That said, the Department's comprehensive review of the 19 schools proposed for closure found that none of those schools was equipped to make the dramatic progress needed to quickly transform into truly successful schools where all students can thrive.

Some commenters have asserted that the DOE has targeted schools with high numbers of minority students and at-risk students, including special education students, incoming ninth graders with low test scores, and homeless students. In support of this claim, commenters state that the schools subject to phase-out serve a significantly higher number of at-risk students than schools with similarly low grades that are not slated for closure. They also claim that these students will be displaced as a result of the school phase-outs because the new small replacement schools will not accept or accommodate such students. New schools that have been opened by the DOE serve all students.