NYC Schools: Planning for Failure?

Categories: Fact Check
A Bronx community group says it's done its reading and its 'rithmetic and found an interesting discrepancy in some of the New York City Department of Education's plans for high school students: Basically, the group claims, the city is targeting a higher graduation rate with one hand and planning for a steeper dropout rate with another.

The most recent Mayor's Management Report sets a goal of 87 percent of students graduating in four years or staying on in high school.

That's one goal. Another goal is how many new seats the city plans to build for high school students in the boroughs, under its multibillion-dollar, five-year school construction plan. In order to determine how many seats to build and where, the city pays a Maryland-based consultant, The Grier Partnership, to project school enrollment in future years.

Grier looks at demographic trends like birth rates and immigration patterns to determine how many kids might enter school. And then it estimates a "cohort survival rate" that indicates how many of the kids who enter school actually stay in school through a particular grade. This rate is linked to (but not the same as) the dropout rate, because if a kid drops out, he does not "survive" to a particular grade.

Grier's latest report says there were a little over 100,000 high school freshmen citywide in 2004. Grier projects that when those students are in 12th grade in 2007, there will be 46,668 12th graders. That means only 45 percent of the 9th graders survived to 12th grade. This begs the question: If only 45 percent even stick around until they are seniors, how can 87 percent graduate or go to year 5?

There are different survival rates among the boroughs (Manhattan 51%, Brooklyn 42%, Queens 52%, Staten Island 65%), but none is worse than the Bronx at 36 percent. That implies that some 14,000 Bronx kids will not stick around for senior year, and that's what has the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Coalition—an organization founded in the 1970s to combat the destruction of the Bronx by arson and neglect—upset. The way NWBCCC sees it, if DOE is allocating new seats based on predictions of a 36 percent retention rate, the city is planning on—and kind of counting on—failure.

Right now the Bronx has about 60,000 high school seats (about 8,000 are for GED and special education programs) and a shortage of a couple thousand seats. The city plans to build nearly 10,000 new seats in the northernmost borough. That's more than Grier says the city will need, but less than NWBCCC believes the Bronx will actually require if the city's population keeps growing and schools get anywhere near the city's 87 percent graduation-or-fifth-year target. If their kids do "survive," the group asks, where will they sit?

The Department of Education says that the survival rate and the graduation rate are apples and oranges. If a student doesn't get from 9th to 12th grade in four years, maybe it's because they've stayed back a grade, the DOE posits. In an email response to questions, DOE spokesperson Marge Feinberg said, "Our commitment to the Bronx is demonstrated by our intent to build nearly 10,000 high school seats there. That's more than every borough, except Queens, which has the same amount."

She added: "In addition, we have been and will continue to closely monitor high school enrollment in the Bronx and elsewhere. All factors, including birth rates, immigration, migration, new housing, and graduation rates are taken and will continue to be taken into account. Based on what we have seen in the first two years of the FY05-FY09 Capital Plan, we are comfortable with our projected need of nearly 10,000 high school seats in the Bronx and are moving aggressively ahead with plans to build all of them."

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