At the New Rochelle Board of Education meeting last week, Dr. Jeffrey Korostoff presented his "Goals and Objectives" for 2010-11. Korostoff gave a full-throated defense of the New Rochelle school system that was largely predicated in dismissing the testing data from last Spring and presenting his own set of data that he felt was more "fair". As has become a trend now, he specifically went after the movie "Waiting for Superman", referencing data that he said showed New Rochelle schools were doing better than a charter school in Harlem that was a focus of the film documentary. The exact same argument was made by Yigal Joseph, Principal at Columbus Elementary School, at the previous BoE meeting.
At a recent public meeting to promote the New Rochelle High School Mentoring Program, Dr. Monica Tippet, a House Principal at New Rochelle High School, provided data on graduation rates that was meant to bolster the case that there was an urgent need to improve student performance. The data, however, was entirely misleading, painting a picture of far better performance than had been achieved. In fact, the data completely undermined her case because the graduation data she cited showed New Rochelle was above the State average. If New Rochelle is above average then why the urgency? Why the need to "close the gap" when New Rochelle is above New York State as a whole? Why all the talk about keeping students in school and getting them through to graduation?
For those familiar with the ways of administrators and school board members in New Rochelle, you know that is a rhetorical question. The urgency is real. The numbers are much worse than Dr. Tippet let on. She knows better. How it helps motivate people to pitch in and try to turn things around when you are telling them the school's performance numbers are fine has never been made clear.
Let's look at the numbers.
Tippet said that the New York State average graduation rate was 55% but New Rochelle was above that. She said that the Black graduation rate was 73% and the Latino graduation rate was 61%.
The statewide data from the New York State Report Card for 2008-2009 (page 13)
The New York State average graduation rate was 74% not 55%. The 55% figure is taken from the so-called "state standard" which is a minimum goal that does not change from year to year. It is not test data but an arbitrarily assigned benchmark.
The New Rochelle graduation rate was 76% which is above the state average but by 2 percentage points not 6 to 18 percentage points as the jumble of numbers attempted to convey.
The Black graduation rate was 69% not 73% and the Latino graduation rate was 62% not 61% so both lower and higher.
What is entirely misleading about this data is that neither the school district nor the state report card is addressing the ON-TIME GRADUATION RATE. For 2008-09, the on-time graduation, the gold-standard of measuring school performance, was 55% for Black students and 51% for Latino students or about 53% for minorities generally. For the data for both on-time and post-summer session graduation rates it is White (88%) and Asian (90%) students that are masking the full extent of the problem in the New Rochelle public schools as they graduate at a far higher rate and are many times more likely to graduate on time.
There are serious issues and should be dealt with an in honest, frank way. School officials appear to be incapable of doing this. BoE Members will not do it. Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak will not do it. The Mayor will not do it. Fear likely has a lot to do with it.
What are they afraid of and how serious is this?
As the demographic composition of the school population changes -- and it has become increasingly Latino and thus increasingly a minority school system -- the overall average graduation rate has declined. The danger for New Rochelle is that what was once called "white flight" -- already a fact in the South End elementary schools -- will extend to North End schools leading to a collapse in the performance numbers. National data and studies based on that have shown that there is a tipping point where a school that gets over 50% minority students goes very quickly to 90% minority as whites leave. This is already the case in South End Elementary schools -- Trinity, Jefferson and Columbus (96% Latino) and the middle school they feed into (IEYMS). It is also the case at New Rochelle High School. It is this wave that the Board of Education and school officials are contenting with; the North End schools at Albert Leonard Middle School are their "last stand".
Such a collapse in performance would have a ripple effect across the City, decimating home values with the North End being especially hard hit. The end result would very likely be a movement among affluent North End residents to secede from the City of New Rochelle or at the very least put their children in private schools. This is especially of concern to the North End Democratic political machine that runs every facet of the government in New Rochelle and more so to those who have ambitions of higher office and want New Rochelle in-tact as a political base.
The danger in the North End is not so much "white flight" as "educated/affluent parents flight". New Rochelle is a diverse community with a higher than average population of professionals and highly-paid white collar workers. While the North End is predominantly White, it is not white in the way Rye or Katonah is White. Regardless -- White, Black, Latino or Asian -- these affluent families tend to be preoccupied with school performance and will be the first to leave if they come to believe their children's future is at risk due to placement in low performing schools. They also have the financial means and professional skills that make it far easier to take a loss on their house, take a new job elsewhere, uproot their family or switch from public to private schools. The only thing that may be holding that back today is the three year decline in property values, a slow real-estate market, high unemployment and a depressed economy. As the economy cycles into recovery mode, current trends may escalate despite the best efforts of mentoring programs and what I like to called the New Rochelle Pep Squad -- those who wish to pretend that New Rochelle is a cross between a Normal Rockwell painting and the Dick Van Dyke Show.
With demographic trends working against New Rochelle, the school district is going to have to make radical changes in how the schools operate and our children are educated. The pathetic presentation by New Rochelle High School Principal Don Conetta at a BoE meeting over the summer -- purportedly to address the declining graduation rates among minority students -- is, at best, nibbling at the edges. Conetta closed his presentation by using a ship metaphor and how it takes a long time to turn around a ship.
Hosting Spanish-speaking parents or having custodians mentor black students is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The ship is sinking. Cursing the iceberg or scrubbing the decks is not the answer. First, we need to fill the holes in the side of the ship. Then we need to worry about getting the ship back on course. Along the way we need to think about a new captain -- getting rid of our cheap imitation of Joseph Hazelwood and looking for an authentic David Farragut.
"Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."