by Carol Burris
School Closures: A National Look at a Failed Strategy
Twelve community activists on the south side of Chicago are capturing national attention by putting their health on the line to save their school. It is their third week of a hunger strike designed to force Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel to keep Dyett High School open.
Dyett serves the community of Bronzeville on Chicago’s south side. Bronzeville was the cultural hub for African Americans who fled the south during the Great Migration. The school’s significance in the community runs deep.
The struggle to save the school is part of the growing pushback against neighborhood school closures both within and beyond Chicago—closures that slam poor communities who find beloved institutions shuttered and yanked away. In just one evening, in May of 2014, the Chicago School Board voted to close 50 public schools. A 2014 report by Journey for Justice, entitled Death by a Thousand Cuts, describes the devastating effects of school closings and maps the march of school privatization in communities of color across the United States.
Poor test scores and low graduation rates are the excuse for closures, but the reasons for academic failure that lie beyond the schoolhouse are never addressed. NPE Board member, Jitu Brown, who is part of the hunger strike, summed up the frustration when he said, “We’re tired of our children and our communities being demonized and being blamed for being underserved.”
The schools that are closed
The story of Dyett is a familiar story in underserved urban communities across the United States. As far back as 2011, closures in New York City were criticized for their disparate impact on schools that served the largest numbers of disadvantaged students and were located in communities that needed the stability of a school the most.
A 2011 report by the New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO) recognized that the demographics of the 14 schools slated for closure served a disproportionate number of homeless students, black students, special education students, low income students, and students who were overage for their grade. Ironically, one third of the schools on the list had replaced another school that had been closed before it—repeating a cycle of disruption for neighborhood kids. In a 2013 report, the same patterns emerged— schools on the chopping block served a more disadvantaged student population, and students entering the school had lower scores.
Even as the identified schools were set up for failure, the schools that often replaced them were set up for success. When the schools were reconstituted as smaller schools, they generally served populations of students with less need and higher entering test scores. One report issued by New York City Communities for Change referred to the shutting and opening of schools as nothing more than “a shell game.”
In a beautiful tribute to the once great Jamaica High School, alumni Jelani Cobb, tells the history of the school and how its final demise was brought on by the policies of the Bloomberg administration. In the end, school choice, which dramatically disrupted the demographics of the school body, pushed the school over the test score brink, thus leading to the closing of the school. Cobb writes, “In the battle over the school’s future, many came to see those changing demographics not as happenstance but as a purposeful way of insuring that the creation of small schools in the building would be a fait accompli.”
Although Bloomberg is gone, not much has changed. NPE board member, Leonie Haimson, has been fighting New York City closures since 2011. She was hopeful that school closures would stop when Bloomberg exited, yet now these same schools are being threatened by takeover from the state. “Every neighborhood school that is closed is a tragedy for that community. All efforts should be taken to preserve and strengthen them rather than close them down. Sadly, I’m not sure that even this administration [DeBlasio] is implementing the right policies to ensure these schools improve and survive.”
The human impact of school closures
Cobb begins his story of Jamaica High with the commencement ceremony of its last graduating class, the Class of 2014. Twenty-four graduates were pushed out of their school auditorium for that ceremony, as what remained of Jamaica High School competed for space with the new, co-located school.
Such sad events are not unique. The New York Times featured photographs from a Philadelphia art show that captured the raw emotions felt by community, students, and staff in one of the 31 city schools that were shut down. School ‘closings by the numbers’ exact a human toll when students and teachers lose their place. Some scramble to find spots in other schools once the decision to phase out the school is made. Many students become “over the counter” enrollees in schools where there is space, which is often another school that is spiraling down. The school slated for closure withers away until only a few dozen students remain. It begs the question, are school closings worth the price?
Do school takeovers work?
Reformers will tell you that school takeovers work miracles, and they will point to New Orleans as their proof. While it is true that New Orleans’ state test scores are higher, the complexity of what occurred in that city (including the mass migration out after Katrina) has added variables that are unique and impact results. Doug Harris, the Director of the Research Alliance for New Orleans, speaks not only of the complexity of measuring achievement, but also of the unevenness of improvement. He makes it clear that New Orleans’ lessons “can not be summed up in a headline.”
Takeovers in 2012 in Indiana have resulted in little improvement in achievement and steep drops in enrollment in takeover schools. Of the schools taken over that year, only one had its grade improve from an F. Meanwhile, Tindley Schools, a charter school organization that managed one of the schools, pulled out. They wanted more money to continue.
In 2012, six schools joined the Tennessee Achievement School District, headed by reformer, Chris Barbic, who was charged with turning them around. Three were run by the district; and three were privately run by charter operators using public funds. For two years scores were stagnant. In the third year, math scores in the district-run schools improved, but in the charter-run schools scores declined. Mr. Barbic announced his resignation as of December of this year.
None of this should come as a surprise. In 2002, the state of Pennsylvania began what was called “the nation’s largest experiment in the private management of public schools” in Philadelphia. A 2007 study by the independent, non-profit research organization, the Rand Corporation, found no increases in achievement from the private management of Philadelphia schools, but small gains in restructured schools controlled by the district. Those district-controlled schools that improved were given extra resources and intensive staff support.
The same failed strategies replayed
And yet, despite the dismal results of private control of public schools in the state’s largest city, the same bad playbook was used in Pennsylvania’s York City School District in 2014. NPE President, Diane Ravitch, lamented the loss of citizen voice in the community. “There will be no ‘choice’ for the families of York City. Their children will have to attend a charter school whose headquarters are in Florida. Yes, it is the death of local control and democracy in York City.”
Since Governor Corbett’s defeat, the York City model has softened. David Meckley, whose plan was to turn the district over to charter schools, resigned citing the new Governor’s hostility to his charter takeover plan. The new chief, Carol Saylor, is a veteran educator who is taking a public-school friendly approach. But without adequate resources, improvement will be tough.
NPE board member, Mark Miller, is the Vice-President of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. He sums up the problem faced by Saylor and her counterpart in Chester Upland, where employees are working without pay, this way. “York City and Chester Upland receivers, Carol Saylor and Francis Barnes, are trying to bring about positive change. Unfortunately, nothing can change without more money or fewer unfunded mandates. The unjust enrichment of charter/cyber charter operators is at the crux of the problem.”
And so in Chicago the hunger strike continues—twelve brave souls carry the pain not only for Dyett, but for so many schools who are blamed for conditions out of their control. They are becoming physically weaker by the day, but their spirit is strong. And that hunger for justice will continue until the cycle of shame, shutter, and student displacement and neglect finally ends.
(Note: The city announced it would keep Dyett open as an “arts” school to attract students from across the city. The hunger strike is continuing.)
Please support the Dyett School hunger strike by calling the Rahm Emanuel’s office (312) 744-3300 and tell him that you support the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. On Twitter, send out support at #fightfordyett.