AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
Young People Speak Out on the Impact of Closing Schools
In the prevailing education policy climate, districts often quickly turn to school closings as the best way to deal with chronically low-performing schools. However, those most impacted — the students who attend the closing schools — are rarely included in the decision making.
The student leaders of the Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC) — New York City’s largest student-run education organizing group — want to change that. At an April 10 news briefing, they released a report outlining the damage done to large numbers of low-income and high-need students and students of color who are abandoned in the process of school phase-out. Along with parent leaders, the president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and three city council members, UYC leaders called on New York City’s new chancellor-designee, Dennis Walcott, to invest in and improve failing schools rather than close them. They proposed a package of major reforms that included intensive intervention for struggling high schools, a strong centralized system within the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) to support and coordinate school improvement efforts, curriculum changes that improve student preparation for college, and a formalized role for affected students and their communities.
As part of its support for community organizing for education improvement, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR) provides research, data analysis, training, and technical support to UYC. The goal is to help young people build their capacity to analyze and question policies that affect them, come up with effective solutions, and develop the clout and relationships they need to be part of decision making about their education.
UYC’s report, No Closer to College: NYC High School Students Call for Real School Transformation, Not School Closings, prepared with assistance from AISR staff, presented some sobering data. Significant numbers of the 33,000 students registered at high schools that were closed since 2000 either dropped out, failed to graduate, or were discharged — or no data exist clarifying what happened to them after the schools were shuttered. The report also showed that the closed high schools had disproportionately high percentages of low-income students from communities of color and high-needs students such as English language learners, students in special education, overage students, and students who enter high school below grade level.
These troublesome statistics lead many critics to believe that the schools were set up to fail — whether purposely or inadvertently — by the NYCDOE. Many of the schools experienced spikes in their dropout and discharge rates just before closure, adding to the perception that thousands of students were purposely pushed out. Parents, students, elected officials, and UFT president Mulgrew charged that students from closed schools are casualties of the NYCDOE’s misguided school reform policies and that no comprehensive efforts have been made to ensure that students from those schools receive a college and career preparatory education. Here is what some of them had to say:
Jorel Moore, a 17-year-old UYC leader who is the author of an article in the forthcoming issue of AISR’s quarterly journal Voices in Urban Education:
As a senior at a high school in its last year of phase-out, my entire high school career has been defined by school closure. No other schools should lose programs, teachers, and space because DOE hasn't figured out how to fix struggling schools. DOE has a responsibility to prepare students for college and has not met that responsibility for too many Black and Latino students. Our new chancellor represents an opportunity for DOE to start with a clean slate and engage the community in a meaningful way to improve the city’s broken schools.
Nijel Hill, a senior at Paul Robeson High School, which was voted for closure this year:
Our school had already been hurt from last year’s proposed phase-out, and I do not want our student body to continue to suffer now that we've begun the closure process — or for students at any school to suffer from a phase-out. My school had to cut our debate team, chess team, robotics club, choir, and the mentor and internship program with Citigroup. Our school and other schools need more resources and help from DOE. We shouldn't have to fight with them for it. The morale of the students has been hit hard. Some of the students start to feel that they are not good enough and ask why should they even try to succeed.
UFT president Michael Mulgrew:
The change in leadership at DOE gives the city a chance to fix the mistakes made in the past, including DOE’s habit of walking away from struggling schools rather than trying to fix them. Rather than turning its back on such schools, the city should be trying to make sure that all schools and students have the resources they need to succeed.
José Gonzalez, a parent leader from the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice(CEJ), New York City’s largest parent-led group:
This report clearly shows that students at closed schools have not been given the attention and resources they needed — and the results have simply been destructive. Closing schools is obviously not the answer, but, most importantly, investing in these struggling schools and doing everything possible to protect the education and future of their students is. That is why we stand united today — parents, students and teachers — calling on Mr. Walcott to make fixing this broken system of addressing distressed schools his first priority as chancellor.
AISR urges the NYCDOE and other policy-makers, as they seek the best policies to address the tremendous challenges of struggling schools, to consider the concerns and suggestions of the real experts on how policy affects students — the students themselves.