AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
Alternatives Needed to New York City Department of Education School Closure Policy
When the New York City Department of Education (DOE) applied for a $3 million federal grant in 2011 to aid Grace Dodge Career and Technical High School in the Bronx, it reported that “approximately 25 percent of the student population are teen parents… which contributes to the poor attendance rates at the school.” Yet when the DOE announced plans to close Grace Dodge this past December, it emphasized the school’s very low attendance rate as a cause for termination without ever mentioning the school’s remarkably high number of school-age parents.
The DOE’s shift in emphasis illustrates an alarming trend in New York City’s school closures. The DOE has too often failed to provide the necessary instructional support for struggling schools before deciding to close them. In fact, struggling schools shuttered by the administration served larger percentages of high-needs students with significant academic challenges than students in the city system as a whole. Worse, analyses of the schools beginning their phase-out in 2011 indicate that in the five years prior to the announcement of the decision to close, the DOE significantly increased the percentages of high-needs students in those schools.
Several schools targeted for closure experienced particularly dramatic increases in their high-needs student populations in the years prior to phase-out. At Grace Dodge and Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High Schools, both on the most recent closure list, 47 percent of incoming ninth-graders had posted eighth-grade reading scores in the lowest third citywide in 2003. By 2011, at least 61 percent of both schools’ entering students fell into that category. Across the five years before the announcement of closure, New Day Academy saw an almost 50 percent increase in its special education students, and an almost 60 percent rise in its English language learners (ELLs). Global Enterprise High School’s special education and ELL populations doubled, while at IS 231, special education students and ELLs increased by almost 60 percent.
On April 17th, at a New York University-hosted forum, the New York City Working Group on School Transformation released its report on alternatives to the DOE's school closings policy. Nearly 70 parents, community members, politicians and local media attended; the day before, a New York Times article on the school closings began with the headline “In Schools Cut by the City Ax, Students Bleed.”
The Working Group, composed of education practitioners, school reformers, policy-makers, advocates, and parent and student leaders, was convened by the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice and coordinated by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, to recommend more effective ways to support the system’s struggling schools.
The Bloomberg administration has closed more than 140 schools since mayoral control was legislated in 2002; yet there is no evidence that the administration’s closure policy has improved outcomes for students in the city’s struggling schools. Studies from Chicago indicate that the students in closing schools do not improve academically in their new schools. Several New York City studies suggest that the new small schools – designed to replace large failing high schools – do not enroll the students who would have attended those large schools had they not been closed. Research focused on high schools undergoing closure (the process in New York City involves a four-year phase-out) suggests a higher dropout rate as well as large numbers of unaccounted for students.
Given the damage and disruption the city’s closure policy creates – and the lack of evidence that these closings improve student outcomes – the Working Group has called on the DOE to stop concentrating high-needs students in struggling schools and, instead, develop interventions and supports to help all schools build their capacity to effectively educate these students.
Specifically, the report recommends the creation of a Success Initiative into which the DOE should incorporate the city’s struggling schools and provide them with targeted support. The report recommends that the DOE identify a set of research-corroborated improvement strategies employed within the city system, as well across the country, that can be adapted by the Success Initiative schools and provide the resources and supports necessary to implement those strategies. Potential models outlined in the report include those used by Turnaround for Children in New York City and Strategic Learning Initiatives in Chicago, which emphasize whole-school reform based on the needs of individual schools. Results of these models’ implementation include higher grades, higher test scores, better attendance, and stronger college preparation.
The report also asks the DOE to develop and implement an inspection system to provide early warnings of deteriorating school performance, as well as interventions to aid improvement in schools whose performance is declining.
The research is clear: Closing New York City’s lowest-performing schools is not effective. Just as teachers must develop their capacity to differentiate instruction for students with varying needs, the DOE must develop the capacity to support improvement efforts differentiated for the specific needs of struggling schools. Instead of setting up these schools to fail and then closing them, the DOE should implement a policy of strategic, systemic interventions backed by resources and supports. With ineffective school closures occurring all over the country, New York City – the largest school district in the country – has the potential to become a nationwide model for how to improve struggling schools rather than close them.
 Julia Gwynne and Marisa de la Torre, When Schools Close: Effects on Displaced Students in Chicago Public Schools (Chicago: Chicago Consortium on School Research, 2009)
 Jennifer L. Jennings and Aaron M. Pallas, Do New York City’s New Small Schools Enroll Students with Different Characteristics from Other NYC Schools? (Providence, RI: Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Brown University, 2010);
Urban Youth Collaborative, No Closer to College: NYC High School Students Call for Real Transformation, Not School Closings (New York: Urban Youth Collaborative, 2011);
Clara Hemphill and Kim Nauer with Helen Zelon and Thomas Jacobs, The New Marketplace: How Small-School Reforms and School Choice Have Reshaped New York City's High Schools (New York: The New School Center for New York City Affairs, 2009)