New York City's schools chief vowed Tuesday to tackle the persistent problem of lagging student achievement in middle school by opening 50 new middle schools, closing failing schools and recruiting good teachers and principals for the middle school years.
In a speech at New York University, Dennis Walcott said the new schools would open over the next two years and would include both charter schools and traditional schools.
Walcott said he would close failing middle schools while applying for up to $30 million in federal turnaround funds to revamp five struggling middle schools in the 2012-13 school year and five more the year after that.
School officials could not say how many of the 400 middle schools in the city's public school system are at risk of being closed. The city moved last year to shutter seven schools that either were stand-alone middle schools or included middle schools, such as a K-8 school.
Walcott noted that preventing students from falling behind in middle school has long been a challenge in New York and elsewhere. The city's elementary school students have made gains on state tests in recent years, but sixth, seventh and eighth graders have not.
Walcott said the best middle schools emphasize literacy and teach students to analyze what they read.
He said he would spend $15 million on nonfiction books for middle schools that are aligned with the Common Core academic benchmarks championed by President Barack Obama's administration in an effort to raise standards nationwide.
He said the city Department of Education's own Leadership Academy must strive to develop the next generation of middle school principals, and he said the department must recruit good teachers for middle schools.
New York City has closed 117 schools, the majority of them high schools, since Mayor Michael Bloomberg won mayoral control of the schools in 2002.
Walcott said the strategy has been successful "but now it's time to shift some of that focus toward our middle schools."
"If a school is failing its students, we will take action and phase it out," he said.
Ernest Logan, head of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents principals, praised the middle school initiative.
"For years, middle schools in this country have been the weakest link in our education system," Logan said in a statement. "CSA looks forward to working with the chancellor on this vitally important effort."
Walcott spoke at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.