Not long ago, New York City was at the forefront of a national effort to improve education for disadvantaged urban students. The city’s new schools chancellor, David Banks, once served as the founding principal of the Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice and as the first principal of the Eagle Academy for Young Men. In the 1990s, the success of these and similar schools helped transform public education in Gotham. Indeed, most of the 485 district-run and charter high schools operating in the city today were created between 1994 and 2014; today, they educate two-thirds of the city’s high school students. This history—and Banks’s crucial role in it—offers reason for optimism that New York can recreate its past success.
How the city improved its school system represents a case study of successful change in a public institution on a large scale. A unique group of organizations and individuals, both inside and outside the public education system, fundamentally remade the landscape of secondary education in New York. It’s a stark contrast to the misguided belief, all too common today, that district officials, working from the central office and removed from daily education matters, can design policies to improve low-performing schools. That approach failed before, and it failed in the de Blasio era that has just ended.
Though the new-schools movement of 1994–2014 did not produce miracles, it succeeded where previous and more recent efforts fell short—and it offers lessons about the proper role and expectations of secondary education in American cities.
For generations, New York’s high schools were large and departmentalized, organized around academic subjects. But by the late twentieth century, particularly in urban areas, this approach was failing. The genesis of new, small high school creation started as a challenge to the organizational orthodoxy that had stubbornly maintained an old educational approach.
The Morris High School building, sitting on a high point in the Bronx, embodies the history of the city’s public secondary education: the optimistic dawn of the nineteenth century, the nightmare of inner-city schools in the late decades of the twentieth century, and the small revival that began in the first years of the twenty-first. Morris, the first public high school in the Bronx and the city’s first co-educational high school, opened in 1897 with a clear purpose: to provide immigrant and working-class students with a college preparatory education. Its building, designed in the Gothic style and overlooking the surrounding area, reinforced this theme. At its peak, it enrolled over 4,000 students, but it eventually became a failure factory. Its last graduating class in 2005 included only 100 students.
Founded in the earliest days of public secondary education, Morris was designed to serve a particular slice of the student population: those considered capable of academic learning as preparation for college. But as public high schools became more common, they opened to all students, changed their goals, broadened their curriculum, and standardized their approach. By the mid-century, new professional standards and practices, teacher licensing, and increased requirements for compulsory education had entrenched many large, comprehensive high schools designed to serve both the college-bound and those destined to enter the workforce directly.
In some locales, these schools still work. But in New York City’s poorest urban areas, these large comprehensive high schools were expected to prepare most, if not all, students for college—just as many families with the inclination and social capital needed to send their children to college were decamping to the suburbs. Urban high schools saw their demographics change dramatically, eventually serving black, Puerto Rican, and other Hispanic students exclusively.
These schools found themselves on the wrong side of a clear shift in expectations. As the late sociologist Martin Trow observed: “When few students went on to college, there was no disgrace in not doing so; moreover, except for the professions, it was not so clear that occupational success was closely linked to academic achievement.” But as Trow went on to argue, “the more the high school is organized around the college preparatory programs, the more it stresses academic achievement, the more punishing it will be for the non-achievers.” By the mid-1970s, two-thirds of all students in New York’s public schools were black or Hispanic. While the city still offered academically challenging programs in its selective high schools, as well as neighborhood academic and magnet high schools in better-off areas, the goal of college prep for all was never realized in the city.
In the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, achievers and non-achievers sorted into different schools, worsening these stresses. The non-achievers, surely including some who might have enjoyed some success in better schools, were lumped into large “dropout factories.” A 1978 study by the New York Times described the city’s public high school system at the time as serving over 380,000 students in 100 schools. “During the late 1960s and early 1970s,” the story noted, “high schools across the country broadened their curriculum offerings as means of making curriculums ‘relevant’ to students and encouraging potential dropouts to stay in school.” It went on to report that “high school seniors [in 1975] have taken far more remedial, ‘modified’ or otherwise watered‐down courses in all of the basic academic areas than their counterparts in the class of 1973,” just as the Board of Education was planning to “upgrade the standards for high school graduation, which would require students to read at least at the ninth‐grade level and perform arithmetic computations at the eighth‐grade level to receive their diplomas.”
The city’s traditional high school system didn’t just fail to prepare students for college. It also failed to be a universally successful terminal program. Consider that in 1973, the city Board of Education set a goal to upgrade standards to eighth-grade level in math and ninth grade in reading. In 1987, while employed in the school system, I completed the first longitudinal study of students from entry to high school through the next four years for the city’s school system. That study found that just 41 percent of the students who entered high school in the fall of 1982 had earned either a high school diploma or its equivalent by June 1986. Subsequent administrations modified the analysis slightly, pushing the graduation rate up to 46.5 percent, about where it would remain for the next 16 years. For much of the twentieth century, then, the largest public high school system in the country could manage to attain high school graduation for only half its students.
By the 1990s, these dismal numbers made it clear that something dramatic needed to be done with the public high school system in New York City. The pressure for change came from both school-level educators inside the system and community members outside it. The new-schools movement was home to an internal debate between progressive educators who advocated a new pedagogy and more traditional community groups that simply wanted better schools. It also coincided with relentless complaints about union rules that shielded teachers and principals from any responsibility for school performance.
The city had long employed dedicated teachers who chafed under the strict bureaucratic dictates of the hierarchical school system. These educators favored a “constructivist” approach to teaching and learning, which made the teacher a facilitator of the student’s learning, as opposed to the transmitter of knowledge. The student was encouraged and expected to pursue his own path to the subject matter, to think critically about it, and to arrive at knowledge on his own. “Instead of having the students relying on someone else’s information and accepting it as truth,” one guide reads, “the students should be exposed to data, primary sources, and the ability to interact with other students so that they can learn from the incorporation of their experiences.” One high school of this type was organized around the principles “that less is more; that it is better to know some things well than to attempt to cover many things superficially; that high standards must be set for all students; that students demonstrate mastery of their subjects through exhibitions and portfolios; that teaching and learning must be personalized; that students are perceived as workers and teachers as coaches; and, finally, that youngsters discover answers and solutions to problems by being active learners.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, the system allowed the creation of some high schools that followed the constructivist approach. These largely served special populations—second-chance schools for students who had fallen severely behind or who were returning to school after dropping out, as well as a new international high school for recent immigrants. District 4 in East Harlem had also supported award-winning educator Deborah Meir, who founded Central Park East elementary school (it eventually grew to include a middle and high school) using the constructivist approach.
Meantime, community groups outside the school system were challenging the city to do something. Pastors and community leaders associated with East Brooklyn Congregations, of the Industrial Areas Foundation, spent several years pushing for the reform of two failing local high schools: Thomas Jefferson and Bushwick. Disappointed by the system’s inability to improve those schools, these groups proposed to create two new small high schools as alternatives. They partnered with the team of educators then at the Manhattan Institute on the schools’ design. (Alongside a different partner organization, a similar effort was undertaken by the IAF affiliate in the South Bronx.)
Tragedy moved these reform efforts along. On February 27, 1992, two students, Ian More and Tyrone Sinkler, were shot and killed inside Thomas Jefferson High only an hour before a scheduled visit by then-mayor David Dinkins. Shortly after the funerals, the schools chancellor agreed to sit down with East Brooklyn Congregations’ leaders to discuss their plan. That plan eventually expanded to include not only the school proposed by South Bronx Churches but also others proposed by various city groups, aided by the receipt of a $25 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation, part of its nationwide Annenberg Challenge to fix the nation’s schools, to the organization now known as New Visions. It culminated in the successful opening of a group of new high schools between 1996 and 2001, dozens of which still operate today.
As the Annenberg Challenge money dried up and the leadership of city schools turned over, the system became less supportive of efforts to found new schools. This changed in early 2001, thanks in large part to a new philanthropic push led by the Gates Foundation.
At the time, I was working with several organizations that were involved with the Industrial Areas Foundation–Metro NY, including South Bronx Churches and East Brooklyn Congregations. Norman Wechsler, the Bronx Superintendent of High Schools, asked South Bronx Churches to seek a grant from Gates to transform high schools in the borough—beginning with the closure of Morris High School and the development of four new small high schools to occupy the Morris building. This group had caught the eye of the superintendent because, in the mid-1990s, they had successfully pushed the Board of Education to create a new small high school. Bronx Leadership Academy struggled at first but hit its stride by 2000; it had garnered a reputation for good outcomes and for training emerging school leaders among its faculty. When the superintendent wanted to show representatives of the Gates Foundation that change in the South Bronx was possible, he brought them there.
Several groups were involved, each playing crucial roles. The nonprofit New Visions helped coordinate the implementation of the Gates Foundation grant. South Bronx Churches recruited community partners to help design the new schools, provide additional services to students, and anchor the institutions in the communities they were meant to serve. Local allies, the thinking went, might be able to keep the larger system at bay. My colleagues and I overcame the sense that community partners were not really a priority for the school system.
Specific personnel helped the effort succeed, too. Bronx High School deputy superintendent Eric Nadelstern conceived of and implemented a comprehensive process to train and review designs for new schools. It was deliberative and intense, involving weekly training sessions in the Morris High School auditorium and follow-up consultation with members of his staff. Each team had to present its final design plan to a committee of district leaders, representatives of the teachers’ union, and others to gain approval to start their schools.
The Bronx initiative expanded across the city once Michael Bloomberg became mayor and appointed Joel Klein his schools chancellor. When Klein decided to replicate the Bronx effort in the other boroughs, he put Nadelstern in charge. Between 2003 and 2014, the city opened 228 new schools. The effort led to a dramatic increase in the graduation rate, one that has continued since: as of 2020, the graduation rate was either 83 percent, using the city’s historical method of measurement, or 79 percent, using the slightly different methodology introduced by the state education department in 2008.
What did we learn from this grand experiment? Rigorous independent research on some of the schools that opened in the Bloomberg era found that they helped their students, compared with the schools that they replaced. Current data show that, on average, the non-selective small schools created between 1994 and 2014 are getting their students to progress through the grades, earn passing scores on the Regents exams, and graduate on time at about an 83 percent rate.
Despite this success, however, the Bill de Blasio administration marked the end of the new-schools movement. De Blasio not only shut down the process by which the Department of Education’s own teachers, union members all, could propose, design, and start new schools; he also loudly opposed charter schools. Early in his mayoralty, de Blasio declared that he would fix low-performing schools rather than close them. His Renewal Schools program spent over $750 million by the time it was shut down, having achieved nothing measurable. Though parents shun those schools, some kids remain mired in them. When control of the state senate flipped from Republican to Democratic in 2019, charter schools lost necessary political support in the state capital. The legislature has refused to raise the arbitrary cap on the number of charter schools that can be opened in New York City.
As Eric Adams settles into the mayor’s office and David Banks gets used to his new role as chancellor, the city’s high schools continue to face challenges. Achievement disparities among students from various demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds are stark. A number of reforms are needed: acknowledging that significant numbers of students enter high school with academic records indicating they are not likely to succeed in college; investing in the creation of new, high-quality schools with a workforce-preparation focus, with a goal of clear entry to living-wage jobs upon completion of high school; getting the state Education Department to accelerate the approval of career certifications, tied to industry standards in various fields; making it official policy that preparation for entry to the workforce is a valid goal for high school education—and ceasing the requirement that all students pursue an academic program that will make them “college-ready”; supporting innovative pedagogical approaches such as those followed in the Performance Consortium schools; and removing the arbitrary cap on the number of charter schools in New York City.
With the pandemic subsiding, the city’s high schools are under increasing scrutiny. The suspension of statewide tests in 2020 and the voluntary nature of those tests in 2021 mean that schools that had been using academic achievement as a screening mechanism for admissions cannot do so this year. Instead, schools have adopted procedures that some have criticized for resembling random assignment and rendering achievement differences among applicants moot. While the school system had to make some changes, it must also recognize the deep fear of many parents that children who may have gotten into higher-tier high schools under the old regime will now end up placed in the lowest tiers. To ameliorate that concern, the work of eliminating the lowest-performing schools should begin anew. It worked before, and it can work again.
Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images