A transfer school that the city is planning to close is desperately trying to escape an accountability dragnet planted by No Child Left Behind.

Its plight could reshape how other transfer schools are assessed under a new accountability system the state is working to devise.

Bushwick Community High School is one of 33 schools that Mayor Bloomberg has said he wants to shut down and reopen after replacing half of the teachers. It landed on the list after its low graduation rate triggered penalties under city, state, and federal accountability systems.

BCHS teachers say the school is being penalized because it enrolls only students who have been unsuccessful in other high schools, making it unlikely for them to graduate on time. This week, the staff submitted a letter to Bloomberg arguing that he should remove BCHS from the list schools that the city is planning to “turn around.”

“BCHS’s placement on the PLA list is the illogical conclusion of a crude, one-size-fits all accountability system,” they wrote. “As a transfer school, BCHS is designed to be part of the solution for struggling students in the city, but the current accountability metrics punish us for working with our students while allowing the source of their failures to go undetected.”

It’s a position that state officials support and are even trying to turn into policy.

State education officials have visited the school often in recent months at the behest of Regent Kathleen Cashin, who believes the school was unfairly placed on the list.

“We must change the metrics to allow these schools to stay open,” said Cashin, who was accompanied by Chancellor Merryl Tisch on two of her visits to the school last last year. Ira Schwartz, the state education official in charge of devising a new accountability system for the state, has also met with teachers and administrators at the school.

Schwartz is leading efforts to craft New York’s application for a waiver from the draconian proficiency requirements of the Bush-era law No Child Left Behind. The state’s application, which will be finalized and submitted to the U.S. Department of Education next month, is set to include new language that will allow the state to have greater flexibility to assess transfer schools.

The schools have long been lumped in with traditional high schools for accountability purposes, even though their students are very different. Students who enter transfer schools have already struggled in other high schools, and many have been incarcerated, homeless, or parented children.

“These transfer schools provide an enormous opportunity for these students to turn themselves around,” said Tisch.

The new language would remove consequences from transfer schools if their graduation rates fall short — an inevitability when students enroll years into their high school careers, already far behind where they should be.

Tisch said she supports the special language in the NCLB waiver being considered for transfer schools. But she declined to comment on whether BCHS should be removed from the state and city accountability programs.

The school opened in 2004 with a mission of serving students no other high schools would enroll. Unlike most transfer schools, which require students to have earned some credits in other high schools, BCHS enrolls any student 17 or older who walks through the doors.

“This sets us apart from most other transfer schools,” said Aaron Boyle, a teacher at the school. “Our mission has always been to be open for all students to pursue their high school diploma.”

But it quickly earned a reputation for having one of the city’s lowest graduation rates and landed on the state’s list of schools facing consequences because of their performance. Last year, just 25 percent of students graduated in 6 years, the second lowest rate in the city. Among students who entered the school with fewer than 22 credits, the school ranked dead last.

Federal regulations allowed the state to evaluate transfer schools on a case-by-case basis when compiling their list of “persistently low-achieving” schools, an Obama administration designation that is based on NCLB’s rankings of schools.

No transfer schools landed on the state’s first list of “persistently low-achieving” schools, compiled in January 2010. But when an updated list came out in December 2010, two transfer schools were on it. One was BCHS.

For the last year and a half, the consequences of being on the list were palpable but not disruptive, teachers said. As a “restart” school, BCHS was partnered with a nonprofit group that took over some management duties. The nonprofit, New Visions, was leading efforts to pilot new teacher evaluations and helping teachers scrutinize student work.

Meanwhile, teachers at the school were helping state officials craft the language about transfer schools for the NCLB waiver and growing optimistic that the state was recognizing the BCHS’s plight.

But when Bloomberg announced that he would abandon the “restart” program in favor of a different plan that would not require him to negotiate new teacher evaluations with the city teachers union, the wind went out of BCHS’s sails.

“The state has already acknowledged that we’re not supposed to be on the PLA list and they’re actively pursuing a way to get us off it,” said David Donsky, a veteran teacher and UFT chapter leader. “The problem is the mayor might shut down our school before we can get reprieved.”

Superintendent Karen Watts will meet with staff  and parents tonight as part of an early engagement process that the city is organizing for each of the 33 schools due for closure under the turnaround model.

The full letter BCHS sent to Bloomberg is below.

An Open Letter to Mayor Bloomberg From the Staff of One of the 33 PLA Schools

January 18, 2012

Dear Mr. Mayor,

One of the 33 PLA schools you are proposing to close with the Turnaround Model is Bushwick Community High School (BCHS).  Taking such a step would recklessly intensify a process which is already being misapplied to our school, and would be a mistake with dire consequences for the young people of NYC who are most at risk.

BCHS is a transfer school, a second-chance high school serving students 17-21 years-old coming from unsuccessful experiences at other high schools in the city.  BCHS is not a “failing school” but one where students achieve significant academic growth.  Moreover, our school succeeds with some of the most challenging students: students who have previously dropped out of high school, students who have failed all their classes for years, students with learning disabilities, students who are parents, students who have been incarcerated, students who are involved with gangs, students without parents or guardians.

If BCHS is a good school, why is it on the PLA list? 

Good question.  The answer is that the PLA list is determined by the traditional measures of a school’s four-year graduation and Regents passing rates.  However, because we are a transfer school, BCHS students come to us for the exact reason that they are off-track from finishing their academic requirements on a four-year timeframe.  Most of our students begin at BCHS at age 17 or 18 with fewer than 15 credits.  It is mathematically impossible for our students to graduate “on time,” due to the lack of success they had at their previous schools.  Yet, we are the ones being held accountable under the current system.

Do you have any evidence to support the claim that BCHS is successful? 

Yes.  Students routinely demonstrate improved outcomes over their prior school experience with us, and on the transfer school-specific Alternative Cohort, our school made AYP for Regents exam performance in the 2010/11 school year.  Additionally, our school’s NYC Progress Report highlights much of our success.  Compared to the other transfer schools BCHS is given a 95% for improving student attendance, a 90% for our English Regents pass rate, and a100% for our Math Regents pass rate.  This means BCHS is performing at the top of our peer group of schools in these vital areas.  These factors contribute to our grade of “B” for “Student Progress.”

In addition, the city’s most recent Quality Review of the school characterized BCHS as “proficient overall” with many “well-developed” areas.  Here’s a quote from the city’s last quality review:  [BCHS] embraces some of the city’s most over-aged and under-credited students reflecting their philosophy that all students deserve a second chance. To this end, all stakeholders are highly effective in collectively supporting the specific needs of each individual student in a safe, secure environment that students love to come to.

BCHS’s placement on the PLA list is the illogical conclusion of a crude, one-size-fits all accountability system.  As a transfer school, BCHS is designed to be part of the solution for struggling students in the city, but the current accountability metrics punish us for working with our students while allowing the source of their failures to go undetected.  This contradiction has been widely recognized and is currently being addressed by New York State.  For BCHS to be gutted in the meantime by political brinksmanship would be a tragic consequence of an accountability process gone awry.

What are the consequences of removing half the staff?

Devastating.  Our school currently has a strong team of talented and highly motivated teachers, but being on the PLA list has already hindered our ability to attract and retain talented teachers.  Last year, because we were on the PLA list, none of the seven teachers who were eligible for tenure were approved by the superintendent, despite being recommended for tenure by our principal.  As a result, many left.  Replacing them wasn’t easy.  One replacement, a first-year teacher, had to leave the school in December.  We are still searching for a suitable replacement.  If we can’t replace one teacher, how will we replace half the staff?  Where would these replacements come from?  Ironically, we would be forced to recruit from the 1500 teachers laid off by the closing of the other 32 schools.  Is this disruptive game of musical chairs really your solution?

You have been an advocate for improving the teacher evaluation system.  We acknowledge the shortcomings of the previous system and would welcome a new system that accurately assesses our abilities and gives us useful feedback.  However, a process with the pre-determined conclusion of 50% of teachers being pushed out is hardly a fair or effective effort along those lines.  It is a cynical blame game that will remove many good teachers, extinguish collaborative efforts and relationships among the faculty, fill the school with a bunch of new teachers, and demoralize those who remain.  How is that a winning scenario for our students?

We acknowledge the NYC school system faces enormous challenges, but sacrificing teachers as simple scapegoats is not a solution.  The path you are pushing our schools down will only result in more children left behind.  Let’s end the political games and work together on collaborative, comprehensive strategies that can truly improve the complex issues of our school system.

Sincerely,

The Staff of Bushwick Community High School