MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
New York was one of the cities whose student's test scores hardly budged. That's despite reformers focusing on exam scores and accountability. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was a leader of that movement. He closed hundreds of low-performing schools and allowed privately managed charter schools to flourish. Bloomberg is leaving office at the end of the month. Beth Fertig of member station WNYC examines his legacy.
BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: Washington Irving High School used to be a large school with 4,000 students near the hustle and bustle of Manhattan's Union Square. But today, the elegant, century-old building with painted murals depicting scenes from New York history is home to seven separate schools.
On the fifth floor, tenth graders in the Academy for Software Engineering practice different computer programming languages.
JULIAN MONTALVO: Java, HTML, Scratch, Alice.
FERTIG: Fifteen-year-old Julian Montalvo says this high school was his first choice. He and his classmate, James Breton, were both excited when the school opened in 2012. The 242 students all have mentors at companies including Google and Morgan Stanley.
MONTALVO: Not a lot of students are going to have this. So to have it and have like the skill is going to be really good.
JAMES BRETON: I want to learn something new. And I knew that computer science is something that would help me in the future because it's a growing business.
FERTIG: Meanwhile, on the second floor, there's a totally different mood. First graders in a Success Academy charter school are wrapping up their chess class. The charter moved into the building this year. These two new schools and others are replacing Washington Irving High, which struggled with low graduation rates and will close in 2015. The city uses test scores and other metrics to determine which schools to close. But teachers at Washington Irving say those data points don't tell the whole story.
GREGG LUNDAHL: This mayor has trusted data but he's never really understood that education isn't about that.
FERTIG: Gregg Lundahl has been teaching history at Washington Irving for 22 years. He acknowledges his school became a tough place. The graduation rate fell to less than 50 percent.
LUNDAHL: We had major attendance issues. And I didn't see, during that time, our mayor had cut our attendance teachers. He cut our programs. Our school cut our programs to address those kids.
FERTIG: The city claims it does try to help struggling schools but replacing them with small, new schools is a signature policy of the Bloomberg era. Nearly 200 schools were closed since 2002. In that time, there's been a 50 percent increase in the number of city schools, to more than 1,800. The mayor credits this shakeup with raising the city's four-year graduation rate to 66 percent. It was stuck below 50 percent when he took office.
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: What is clear is that for the 12 years we've been doing this, the results are, by any national standards, outstanding. We really have become the poster child. It's really quite amazing.
FERTIG: But while more students are graduating, nearly 80 percent of those who attend local community colleges need remedial classes in either math or reading. Mayor Bloomberg also put a huge focus on expanding privately managed charter schools. The city has 183 of them and their test scores are higher than average.
Randi Bayroff has a son in kindergarten at the Success Academy charter school in Washington Irving. She recalls when the high school kids used to throw furniture out the windows 10 years ago.
RANDI BAYROFF: A chair came flying out of the top floor and hit someone walking on the street.
FERTIG: To her, the new schools are an improvement.
BAYROFF: I am thrilled and ecstatic that hopefully it'll even clean up this neighborhood, this block where we would tell our nannies not to walk down.
FERTIG: Charters started off in low-income communities but they've been expanding to wealthier parts of the city. Monica Thornton, who also lives in downtown Manhattan, says her son tried two different regular public schools before landing at the Success Academy.
MONICA THORNTON: The demand is there. I think that that's clear. And it would be very difficult to argue with that.
FERTIG: And yet, the arguments are bound to continue. Critics note that charters serve fewer students who are still learning English and who have the most severe disabilities. Now, New Yorkers have elected a new mayor, Democrat Bill de Blasio, who wants charters to pay rent for space in public school buildings. During a candidates forum last spring, he also said the Bloomberg administration made test scores a, quote, "false idol."
MAYOR-ELECT BILL DE BLASIO: If we don't get away from this obsession with standardized testing, we're going to keep putting undue pressure on our children. We're going to keep sending confusing messages about how schools are progressing.
FERTIG: Which means a lot of changes are coming to a school system of more than a million students, a system dominated by one mayor for the past 12 years. For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.
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