Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Destabilizing Large High Schools: The Beach Channel HS Story

Typical actions by DOE, diverting more “over the counter” students to Beach Channel HS, destabilizing the school and putting it on the impact list.

This was a school that was allocated over $1 million that it said would be used to reduce class size; and was expecting to lower class size, according to just-released DOE chart to lower class size to 27 from 29.5. Wonder if indeed that occurred, or if the additional students foiled those efforts.

SED took as a great advance, they told me, Tweed’s promise not to undermine any principal’s efforts to reduce class size by sending more OTC students.

Leonie Haimson

Executive Director

Class Size Matters

124 Waverly Pl.

New York, NY 10011


November 21, 2007

On Education NY Times

A High School Struggles With Surprise Students

Several weeks ago, Cristal Urena proposed what should have been the most prosaic of activities. As the student government president at Beach Channel High School in Rockaway Park, Queens, she asked the administration to allow an after-school dance in December to celebrate the coming holidays.

The answer was no. And this no, it appears from Cristal’s account, was not the autocratic no of unreason. It was the reluctant no of a principal, David Morris, whose school has been destabilized this fall by an unannounced influx of students from outside its attendance boundaries.

Some arrived with histories of disciplinary problems or even criminal activity, school records show, while others had been in full-day special education programs. Others brought volatile gang allegiances from their home neighborhoods, according to school personnel. And in no case did Beach Channel receive advance warning.

While Mr. Morris declined to be interviewed for this column, a detailed memo written by two of his assistant principals paints a vivid picture of an improving school rattled by the violent or criminal behavior of several dozen students that the memo says were foisted on Beach Channel.

Andrew Jacob, a deputy press secretary at the city Department of Education, said Beach Channel had not been singled out as a dumping ground for troubled students. “Based on our numbers,” he said, “I don’t see how anyone can make the argument that one school is being favored or disfavored over any other.”

But the department does not dispute that in the first month and a half of the academic year at Beach Channel, as the memo describes, there was a spike in disruptive incidents: drug possession, weapons possession, fighting, insubordination to school safety officers and an attack on a dean. The memo lays the responsibility for many of these episodes on the newly enrolled students. The net result, the memo said, was a “crisis situation.”

The memo, which was sent to security officials at the Education Department, resulted in Beach Channel’s receiving more school safety officers, which in turn has reduced the number of incidents, department officials acknowledge. Teachers, students and administrators in the school have been torn between their desire to call attention to the problem and their fear of damaging the school’s reputation by pointing out the turbulence.

“There’s a lot of good students at Beach Channel, and they need it and deserve it,” Cristal, a 17-year-old senior, said of the dance she proposed. “But because of the bad students being put in our school, transferred into our school, we can’t have it. They’re messing it up for everyone.”

All the difficulty follows, and threatens to undo, progress that the Education Department acknowledges Beach Channel has been making. The school received a C in its first letter grade from the department, but a “quality performance review” conducted last year lauded the academic and pedagogical improvements that Mr. Morris, the principal, had made during his four years in the position. The review specifically noted that the school ran “smoothly.”

Or so it did until this fall. Last month, the Education Department placed Beach Channel on its list of “impact schools,” tacitly acknowledging the concerns about security expressed in the memo and entitling the school to more safety services.

“No matter what we do, when we meet one challenge, the Department of Education puts up another one for us to deal with,” said David Pecoraro, a math teacher who is the chapter leader for the teachers’ union at Beach Channel. “It’s Sisyphus pushing the stone up the hill. We just want an even break from the department, an even playing field.”

The Beach Channel memo, written by the administrators in charge of security and pupil personnel services, says that this year the school received 50 new students whose zoned school is Far Rockaway High School; 16 new students from alternative programs, including those for incarcerated teenagers; and 11 students from all-day special education programs.

All of these students were admitted “over the counter” — a bit of New York education lingo that means they just showed up at Beach Channel one day, with no planning, no advance warning. In a city constantly replenished by immigrants, there is usually nothing unusual about over-the-counter admissions. Beach Channel’s unanticipated newcomers, however, soon participated in a large amount of mayhem, according to the memo. It said 24 of them were involved in disciplinary incidents between Sept. 4 and Oct. 12.

Mr. Jacobs of the Education Department said Beach Channel’s tally of incoming students was fundamentally correct, if over-the-counter and out-of-zone admissions are counted together. While Beach Channel’s total number of special education students fell this year from last, the percentage of them increased slightly, because of a drop in the school’s overall enrollment.

“There was nothing out of the ordinary about the process of getting their transfers” at Beach Channel, Mr. Jacob said. “Any large high school in the city is going to be dealing with students from a wide variety of backgrounds.”

The entire system of reassigning students, however, has changed in recent years. Back when there were still borough superintendents of high schools, or even regional superintendents, principals at least had the opportunity to discuss who was being put into their schools. Guidance counselors and parents sometimes met to work out placement decisions.

That human touch can matter greatly when gang tensions in home neighborhoods can be inadvertently imported into the schools with transfer students. Indeed, in an October incident reported in The Wave, a weekly newspaper for the Rockaways, several students formerly from Far Rockaway High School attacked a Beach Channel student in the school cafeteria.

Under the Education Department’s new system, a computer program seeks open spaces in schools closest to a student’s home. While a human being maintains some oversight, Mr. Jacob said, “It’s true it’s mostly based on the available seats in a given school.” He added, “Beach Channel has more available seats.”

For now, some calm has returned to Beach Channel. A certain cynicism, though, accompanied it, given the Education Department’s penchant for closing large high schools that can be depicted as failures.

“I don’t know if the D.O.E. didn’t think about it,” Mr. Pecoraro, the math teacher, said about the effect of the involuntary transfers. “The worst thing is if they did think about it and they’re planning for the demise of Beach Channel.”


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