SCHOOL LIVES MATTER: Extremely low scores!

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2017

Part 2—And a rather unusual name:
Last Wednesday morning, a 15-year-old student was fatally stabbed during a class at his public high school in the Bronx.

On Thursday morning, Sarah Maslin Nir published the New York Times' first news report about the fatal stabbing. We were struck by an historical claim—and by the name of the school.

It had apparently been a long time since a student was killed in a New York City school. Headline included, here's the way Nir's report began:
NIR (10/28/17): Bronx High School Stabbing Leaves a Teenager Dead and Another One Wounded

A 15-year-old was fatally stabbed and a 16-year-old was critically wounded in their Bronx high school on Wednesday morning
in what police say was apparently the culmination of weeks of conflict.

The killing, the first inside a city school building in more than two decades, according to the mayor, set off a lockdown that left hundreds of children cowering inside their classrooms, the older ones frantically texting parents for help. As word of the killing spread, parents desperate to see their children descended on the school building, which houses two schools—the elementary school P.S. 67 and the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, serving students in grades 6 to 12.
According to Mayor de Blasio, it was the first killing inside a city school building in more than twenty years.

For ourselves, we were struck by the name of the school at which this unfortunate event had occurred. The high school in question is apparently called The Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation.

We'll be honest. The name sounded a bit improbable, possibly even a bit high-fallutin', for a public high school in the Bronx.

Question! How many public school kids in the Bronx, or anywhere else for that matter, are actually focused on wildlife conservation? We were struck by the name of the school—and especially so later on, when Nir offered a cursory academic profile of the students:
NIR: The Wildlife Conservation school was started in 2007 by the Urban Assembly, a nonprofit organization that runs 21 small schools across the city, serving primarily low-income and academically struggling students.

Student test scores are low: This year 13 percent of the middle school students passed the state reading tests, and 5 percent passed the state math tests. In 2016, the school's four-year high school graduation rate was 73 percent. More than half of the high school students were chronically absent that year, meaning they missed more than 10 percent of school days.
Say what? According to Nir, five percent of the school's students passed New York's statewide math test last year. A more impressive 13 percent passed the statewide test in reading.

Nir said that the students' test scores were "low;" they sound extremely low. Having said that, might we offer a quick observation?

Nir isn't an education reporter; there's no reason why she should be. That said, passing rates for individual schools should generally be placed in a wider statistical context.

The passing rates for this oddly-named school sound extremely low. That said, what were the passing rates for high school students in New York City as a whole? For the whole state of New York?

Absent such data, it's hard to know exactly how low those passing rates actually are. And no—there's no reason to assume that these statewide tests define a sensible standard for "passing." A reporter should always include the wider passing rates, just to provide basic context.

(What were the statewide passing rates? You'll have to go elsewhere for that. In the past decade, states have made it increasingly hard to access such basic information. We're tired of staging long, fruitless searches for such information, especially in a world where it's plain that no one actually cares about the school lives of students like the ones at issue.)

We were struck by the intersection between the high-fallutin' name of this school and its horrible sounding data. It sounded like the school's test scores were extremely low. Beyond that, its graduation rate was unimpressive, and it sounded like attendance problems were rampant.

Within this school, a killing occurred. We'll offer some observations, starting with a couple of questions:

Who the heck is the Urban Assembly and why is it running these schools? More specifically, why is it running a public high school which seems to be built around wildlife conservation, in the face of which its students refuse to attend?

We're prepared to admit that this sounded odd and unattractive. Quickly, we'll offer some thoughts:

The name of that school sounds wonderfully high-fallutin', in a way which tends to turn the heads of clueless, uncaring "meritocratic" elites. The capsule profile Nir provided had a different sound:

It sounded like the kids at this school might well need types of "remediation" more than they need to be concerned about what's occurring in the rain forest or on the plain. Might they possibly need types of help this school just isn't providing?

A quick bit of background:

Long ago, clueless elites fell in love with the high-fallutin' idea that low-income kids need to be challenged more at school. This reasoning has never exactly made sense:

These under-served kids can't meet the traditional academic standards we already have—so we'll make the standards tougher? This unusual reasoning always sounds good—from a thousand miles away.

In truth, some low-income kids aren't being challenged enough at school—but many are perhaps being challenged too much, from their earliest years. We couldn't help wondering if that was occurring inside this unfortunate, oddly-named school.

Nir was offering a capsule, first-day report about a deadly event. Absent the missing context for those test scores, she did a perfectly decent job. Eventually, she quoted the dean, Kevin Sampson. He explained what had occurred:
NIR: Shortly after they were released from the lockdown on Wednesday afternoon, Asia Johnson and Yanique Heatley, both 18, stood outside the high school at 2040 Mohegan Avenue in the West Farms neighborhood.

The two were friends with all three of the students involved, they said. Ms. Heatley described Mr. Cedeno as ''different from the other guys.''

''He likes Nicki Minaj, stuff from H&M. He likes Kylie Jenner,'' she said.

''This hurts,'' Ms. Johnson said. ''No one should experience bullying but there's a way to handle it.''

''It's really sad,'' Ms. Heatley added. ''Two boys might lose their lives and our friend will never see the outside again.''

Mr. Sampson, the school's dean, stood, visibly shaken, outside on Mohegan Avenue. He had performed CPR on Matthew, he said. ''Two of my students got stabbed and one of them died,'' Mr. Sampson said. ''It was about what it's always about—bullying.''
Dean Sampson said the killing had resulted from bullying. He said that's what such incidents are always about.

The next day, in a front-page news report, the Times described the types of bullying which had allegedly occurred. But Nir had already begun to describe the horrid conditions which allegedly obtained within this school. The next day's front-page report would describe these conditions in much greater detail.

Was bullying at the heart of this deadly incident, or might the problems have run deeper? Tomorrow, we'll review the gruesome conditions being attributed to the school, and we'll ask a simple question:

If schools lives actually matter, why didn't the New York Times report on this school long ago?

Tomorrow: What the parents said

Friday: Do school lives actually matter? The two-year-old, nationwide test scores which you've never seen

10 comments:

  1. I attended elementary school in the Bronx, then moved to a suburban Junior High School. My elementary school had large classes (by today's standards) of around 30. Money spent per pupil was relatively low. Yet, my Bronx education was good enough for me to match the children who had benefited from the suburban elementary school.

    Why did Bronx education deteriorate? I don't know.

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    1. Why have you deteriorated with passage of time?

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  2. 1. Why is "wildlife conservation" considered high-fallutin'? If this school were in Oregon or New Hampshire, would its name seem as odd?

    2. Why has Somerby omitted the fact, mentioned in yesterday's article, that Cedeno was gay? Does that perhaps not fit his idea that there is something systemically wrong with this school that makes this more than an incident of bullying?

    3. Bullying can occur in any school, for any reason. If a kid is not actually gay, bullies may call him that because of some other difference. Anti-bullying programs are part of school administration and a well-run school tries to address bullying proactively. Shrugging and saying boys will be boys doesn't cut it. So this can be both a school administration problem and a bullying issue. It doesn't have to be one or the other. And bullying is not inevitable, especially not to the point of violence (or suicide, as sometimes occurs).

    4. Since the time of the muckrakers, when has a major newspaper ever attacked a business for being poorly run? In a capitalist system, free enterprise includes consumer choice (else it is a monopoly). Is poor attendance a matter of consumer choice, as Somerby wishes to frame it here, or is it endemic to poverty and an indicator/cause of poor student performance? Kids who do poorly find little pleasure in school and have less reason to show up, which results in a vicious circle as they fall behind academically. But does this mean this is a bad school? Good schools enact truancy and attendance monitoring that keeps kids in their seats. This one knew their stats but didn't seem to be addressing the issue. Is it fair or right to consider this a matter of consumer choice? I don't think so.

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    1. 1. Yes, it would. To me, anyway. It's the kind of pretentious name I see on "magnet schools" here in Dallas; we have a "Science and Technology Magnet" and a "Fine Arts Magnet" for example. I expect that kind of thing at a university, not at a grade school.

      2. Because Cedeno's actual sexual orientation is not really relevant to his being bullied? In grade school being called "gay" is no less embarrassing if you actually are gay; the point is to make the target feel ostracized and "dirty" somehow. Which you obliquely refer to in point 3.

      3. You state the obvious, and nowhere does Somerby disagree with you, so I don't get why you said this.

      4. You're kidding, right? Newspapers attack businesses for being poorly run all the time! They may not do it by explicitly saying "look at how poorly this business is run," but they definitely report on bankruptcies and executive incompetence and malpractice, just to name a few subjects. I don't think Somerby is "framing poor attendance as a matter of choice." In fact I don't see him speaking about attendance much at all here, other than to speculate briefly on what might explain the Nir article's mention of poor attendance rates (the curriculum being too difficult and inflexible, not "consumer choice").

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    2. Somerby seems to be working his way around to calling the school poorly run, implying that this is a neglect issue instead of bullying. I was trying to point out that this is not either/or because failure to deal appropriately with bullying (which occurs in all schools) is a sign of a poorly run school.

      Somerby never says what he means all at once. You have to suss out where he is going based on clues because he won't actually say it until a week or two later and then not clearly.

      Frankly, I don't know why Somerby is ragging on the school's name -- there doesn't seem to be any reason why kids with low grades wouldn't be interested in animals. He doesn't explain how a high fallutin name would have appeal in a low income neighborhood, or is he suggesting that such names are used to flim flam parents into thinking the school is special?

      Here is where he talks about attendance as a consumer issue: "More specifically, why is it running a public high school which seems to be built around wildlife conservation, in the face of which its students refuse to attend?"

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  3. Google Maps indicates this school is near the Bronx Zoo. Perhaps there is an educational connection that would explain the school's name.

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    1. Almost certainly there is some kind of "partnership" with that zoo; The Urban Assembly is all about public-private partnerships.

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  4. All the high schools in the Bronx seem to have pretentious names. In CA, high schools are named after people. That isn't the custom in NYC. Maybe Somerby isn't used to that.

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  5. 10 seconds of Googling turns up this informational site:

    https://urbanassembly.org/about/about

    There are apparently "over 20 schools" devoted to different "themes":

    https://urbanassembly.org/schools

    The School For Wildlife Conservation happens to be the one located farthest northeast, in the upper Bronx. I assume geographical location would exert a strong influence on which theme school a particular student would attend, rather than subject-matter interest; someone living in the upper Bronx would probably not be able to commute to the School For Criminal Justice in the middle of Brooklyn even if that's the career they were interested in.

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  6. Brilliant post. This is the kind of contextual reporting the NYTimes should be doing. Why aren't they? And why are NYC and NYS low ball funding public schools and allowing profiteer centers like charter schools to exist? They short change our kids. And in this case create lethal circumstances.

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