BY PETE DAVIS, CHRISTOPHER KING & CHRISTINA SANTUCCI
More than half of the Queens public high schools still need improvement in either graduation rates, math or English test scores, according to a report released earlier this month by the New York State Department of Education.
Twenty-three of the 40 Queens schools the State collected data from for the 2005-2006 school year failed to meet at least one guideline set forth by the federal program mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act.
However, Queens principals and the City's Department of Education (DOE) are already questioning the accuracy of the state's calculations.
“We are reviewing the state findings and where appropriate we will appeal the decisions about the newly identified schools,” said New York City Department of Education spokesperson Andrew Jacob. “The identification of several of the schools appears to be in question.”
The report found 228 of the 946 of New York State high schools needed improvement with 107 of the schools receiving Title I funds that require them to make improvements, including providing parental choice and supplementary services for children. The remaining 121 schools do not receive federal funding, and instead are listed as Schools Requiring Academic Progress which must adhere to State accountability measures.
In addition to determining whether the data is accurate, Queens school principals have concerns about whether the findings in these reports fairly represent what is occurring at their schools.
“The more diverse the school is the more of a challenge it is to meet all of the subcategories…that could help to explain why Queens has had so many schools on the list because of our diverse population in the borough,” Hillcrest High School Principal Steven Hugh said.
International High School at LaGuardia, in Long Island City is entirely made up of immigrant students who have been in the United States for less than four years, and is on the list for its students' English performance.
“I do feel that it's not fair for our school,” Principal Lee Pan said. “Based on the students we have it is not fair to compare recent immigrants who came in their high school years and subject them to the time they are expected to perform like a native born in terms of language.”
The report highlights schools' performance in the three areas and holds the school accountable for students of different races and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, limited English proficiency and low-income students.
In addition, more diverse and larger schools are often judged in more categories than their smaller and more homogenous counterparts. If there are less than 30 students in one of subcategories, the state does not hold the school responsible for those categories.
For both Francis Lewis High School and Hillcrest High School, their placement on the list of schools Requiring Academic Progress stems from students with limited English proficiency not meeting requirements set by the state, and both principals said being on the list might give their schools an undeserved stigma.
Last year at Francis Lewis, not enough of the 124 English as a Second Language (ESL) students, a number that the principal questioned, passed the State English exam, and at Hillcrest, only 38 percent of their 85 ESL students graduated in 2006 within four years, 17 percent lower than the number required.
At Hillcrest, Principal Hugh and his staff have dedicated extra attention - additional classes, Saturday sessions, and one-on-one tutoring - to students with limited English proficiency, and their efforts were met with a graduation rate high enough that if the progress continues next year, the school will be taken off the list.
(Editor's Note: Schools need to demonstrate academic progress in all categories for two consecutive years to be taken off the list. If they meet the guidelines during a particular year, their status will remain the same as the previous year until next year's numbers come up.)
“Looking at ESL really requires a different kind of lens,” said Francis Lewis Principal Jeffrey Scherr. “You really can't judge people who just came to this country the same as kids who have been here all of their lives.”
Once ESL students at both schools in 2006 about 18 percent at Hillcrest and about 8 percent at Francis Lewis of the graduating class, according to the State test out of the category by passing an English language exam, they are then grouped within whatever ethnic subcategory that they fall into. Therefore, the students categorized as ESL students at the end of four years are often those who arrived at the school a year or two before graduation or those who struggle the most with the English language, Scherr said.
Aviation Career and Technical High School in Long Island City originally made the list because the report cited their need to improve graduation rates.
“There was confusion because of our fifth-year program,” said Aviation Career and Technical High School Principal Eileen Taylor. “We have a 100 percent graduation rate for our fifth-year students.”
After being alerted to the error, the State Department of Education removed Aviation from the list of schools the same day it issued the report.
Meanwhile, the report listed John Adams High School in Ozone Park as “In Need of Improvement - Year 1” as the only Queens school to not reach satisfactory levels in math and English as well as its graduation rate - a claim disputed by its principal, Grace Zwillenberg. She reported the incorrect numbers to the DOE and asked them to contact the State Education Department about the discrepancies. A state education spokesperson said they were looking into whether they received information from the city regarding disputed numbers.
Still, Zwillenberg acknowledged that the reports were alarming.
“Of course I am concerned,” she said. “We have been going up every year in reading level, math level and graduation level,” she said, citing increased tutoring and preparation programs for students as a key factor in the improvement, but she said there is still more work to do.
BY PETE DAVIS, CHRISTOPHER KING & CHRISTINA SANTUCCI