New York City Schools Win $500,000 Broad Prize

Despite criticisms, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's reforms are showing notably positive results.

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Mayor Michael Bloomberg

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Corrected on 9/18/2007: An earlier version of this story misspelled teacher Jon Martin’s name and incorrectly stated that the campus of the Academy of Urban Planning was on the city’s dangerous schools list.

The school day is almost over at the Academy of Urban Planning high school in Brooklyn, and the students in teacher Jon Martin's senior seminar class are a bit restless. Dorothy Barrett and another senior are discussing voting rights. Beneath a quote from Plato that reads, "No law or ordinance is mightier than understanding" is a poster with the class goals for the semester: "Write a college level paper and score an equivalent of a 3 on the practice AP exam."

There was a time when Barrett, 19, doubted that she could even finish high school, much less go to college. As a sophomore, she became pregnant and briefly thought about dropping out. But since transferring to the Academy of Urban Planning, she has passed all five of the required state exams for graduation. (She is retaking one exam in the hopes of getting a diploma with the state's highest distinction.)

Her personal turnaround mirrors that of the school she now attends. The academy is housed in the same building that five years ago was known as Bushwick High School. Bushwick had one of the lowest four-year graduation rates of any school in New York—a dismal 23 percent. And violence plagued the school's hallways.

Then, five years ago, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control of the city's school districts, launching a flurry of reforms that led to Bushwick's being divided into four smaller schools. Though the mayor's takeover has faced its share of criticism, its early results have been promising enough that the New York City Department of Education was presented with the Broad Prize in Urban Education today, an award that carries $500,000 in scholarships for graduating seniors. The Broad Foundation, a Los Angeles-based philanthropy group, has bestowed the annual prize since 2002 to large urban school districts that have made significant gains in academic achievement, particularly among disadvantaged students.

The other four finalists—Long Beach, Calif.; Bridgeport, Conn.; San Antonio, and Miami—will each receive $125,000 for scholarships. This was the third straight year that New York City made the list of finalists. Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein accepted the award at a ceremony today at the Library of Congress in Washington.

This latest recognition of the turnaround in New York's public schools could embolden other cities with failing schools to mimic similar reforms. (This fall, for example, the new mayor of Washington, D.C., took control of that city's schools.) But it's unlikely that New York's Broad Prize will silence critics of mayoral control of school districts.

In 2002, as part of his campaign promise to turn around one of the nation's most ailing school systems, Bloomberg dissolved the city's 32 school districts and named Klein, a former federal Justice Department lawyer, as schools chancellor. Thanks to an unprecedented infusion of money from the city and state as well as private donations—including millions from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation—the city was able to open new schools, hire more teachers and principals in hard-to-staff areas, and raise salaries.

Large, failing neighborhood schools—about 60 of them—were phased out and replaced by more than 200 smaller secondary schools that cap grade-level enrollment to about 100 students. Under Bloomberg's control, the system, with more than 1.1. million students—already the nation's largest—has ballooned to around 1,400 schools with principals who now exercise greater control over budget and curriculum practices.

Bushwick is an example. The school struggled with violence, overcrowding, and low student achievement ever since a blackout in 1977 led to mass looting and arson in the surrounding community. Bushwick eventually grew to house more than twice the number of students it was built to serve. A physical education teacher who arrived at the school in 1996 remembers unruly kids who would pummel him with eggs and the school's courtyard being littered with syringes. "This place was wild," he says, likening the experience to being thrown into a den of wolves.