Page last updated at 17:03 GMT, Monday, 30 March 2009 18:03 UK

Bronx school top of the class

By James Westhead
BBC News education correspondent, New York

Bronx Academy pupils -
Pupils are proud of their grade (courtesy Ayman Oghanna)

There are proposals for England's schools to be given report cards, with grades A-F.

New York schools are already receiving such grades - and Children's Secretary Ed Balls has visited a school in an under-privileged neighbourhood of the US city to see how it could work.

Amid high crime and poverty, school can look more like a prison in the Bronx, one of New York's most challenging neighbourhoods.

But against the odds, the Bronx Academy has worked miracles. It may not get the best exam results, but pupils make huge progress here.

Under a controversial new system of report cards for schools, it has been awarded a grade A, and its pupils are proud.

"Just because you're not in a rich environment - I know that I'm able to succeed in an environment which is not so well resourced, and that makes me feel good," says student Stephen Luna.

"To do it in adversity - that's a big deal," he adds.

In New York, the school's grade is weighted so the most importance (60%) is given to the progress being made. Exam results count - but not for everything.

Tough

And the single grade is vital for the principal too. That grade combines a wide range of measures, progress and behaviour as well as results. If the grades are low there are tough consequences.

"If you consistently fail, or you consistently do not show progress, that could be cause for a little more attention being paid to what's happening in that school," says Bronx Academy principal, Rashid Davis.

Rashid Davis
Rashid Davis explained how the card works (courtesy Ayman Oghanna)

He confirms that principals are under pressure to get the grades - or they get the sack.

Action can be taken if a school is graded lower than a C - or obtains three Cs in a row.
The education secretary is now considering whether schools in England should also be judged by a single grade?

"It must be simple, but it must be challenging," Mr Balls said on a visit to the Bronx Academy.

"What I'm not going to do is set up a system that makes everyone feel like they're going to comfortable," he said.

"Unless it's tough and challenging, it's not going to work."

"The quality of the teaching and learning is the most important thing," he says.

"But I'm sure this information is making a lot of difference in terms of parents' understanding of what this school is all about."

'Useful'

But how can a school's performance in results, leadership, behaviour and curriculum be boiled down to a single letter?

This letter grade is just a statistic - which gives no real feel for what is going on
Andrew Palotta, United Federation of Teachers

Some asked that question here in New York, where grading schools has been controversial. But some argue it's fairer than relying on final exam results.

Jenny has a child at the Bronx Academy, and she thinks the report card helps parents know if that school is improving, and work out if a school could help improve their own child's attainment.

"For parents, it's a very useful thing," she says.

"And it resembles what we're used to seeing all the way through elementary and junior high - we know what the A means.

"When our school got the A grade we knew it was on track, and was doing what it was supposed to be doing."

But parents and staff protested at the recent closure of another New York school which received a grade D - a grade they claimed was unfair.

Andrew Palotta, from the teaching union United Federation of Teachers, says the single grade gives a misleading impression.

"The letter grade is just a statistic, which gives no real feel from the Department of Education for what is really going on."

Pupils at the Bronx Academy give a different impression. The fact that they have been rewarded for their achievements has changed the way they feel about the school, says Stephen Luna.

"This mentality of being able to go to a school and be proud of it - it gets instilled in all the freshmen, and they appreciate it," he says.

Some schools will no doubt be winners, but the scheme promises to be no less controversial if it is introduced in England.



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SEE ALSO
NYC's school cards controversial
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Will reports end school tables?
13 Mar 09 |  Education
'Report cards' would rate schools
08 Dec 08 |  Education

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