Profiles in School Transformation: Introduction
In the last year, closing struggling schools has become a high-profile education reform strategy around the nation. For example, since taking office in 2002, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has overseen the closure of nearly 120 New York City schools and has proposed that an additional twenty-five be closed this school year. Closure is endorsed by the Obama Administration through Race to the Top and the School Improvement Grants program. While no one disputes that dramatic action is necessary to improve the lowest-performing schools, there is no evidence that simply closing schools improves outcomes for students.
In fact, there is abundant evidence that closures harm students and communities.
A study of forty-four closed schools in Chicago found that students re-enrolled in schools that were just as weak or nearly as weak as their closed school (de la Torre & Gwynne 2009). Studies of New York City high schools in the process of being closed show that their student bodies lose access to needed courses and supports and drop out at high rates (Advocates for Children 2009; Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project 2011). Worse, closures set up a vicious cycle in which the highest-needs students are shifted to other struggling schools. When these schools are not supported to meet students’ needs, their test scores suffer and they, in turn, are closed (Hemphill et al. 2009).
Schools slated for closure serve almost exclusively students of color and low-income students. For decades, many of these schools have been denied the resources and supports they need in order to serve students well. In neighborhoods suffering the worst of the economic crisis, closing schools that have educated generations of families only adds to the destabilization of communities. Other interventions mandated by federal policy on turnaround – turning schools over to outside managers and charter organizations or firing large numbers of teachers – likewise lack an evidence base (Mathis 2009) and focus on structural changes, rather than the core conditions of teaching and learning in struggling schools.
On September 24, 2011, the Coalition for Educational Justice brought together parents, teachers, district administrators, and others for a conference to learn about successful alternatives to school closings. In a day-long series of workshops, educators from around the country presented data and stories about their work to improve student performance. Not one principal, superintendent, or educator outlined a strategy that involved closing a school, firing its staff, or turning over management to an outside entity.
The Center for Education Organizing at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform documented the strategies presented and developed brief profiles describing the basic approaches to culture and academic change at the schools represented at the conference. This series of profiles is designed to provide community-based groups, educators, and other advocates with examples of alternatives to school closings to inform discussions in their own communities. The profiles summarize some of the key policy and implementation challenges that have been confronted and addressed by district superintendents, teachers, school leaders, and others working to transform struggling schools. Links are provided for further information on each.
The profiles provide only a few of the many ways that local leaders are addressing and responding to low-performing schools, but we hope that collectively they offer a vision of school change that stands in contrast to policies like closure and “turnaround,” which essentially give up on schools, educators, students, and communities.
Advocates for Children (AFC). 2009. Empty Promises: A Case Study of Restructuring and the Exclusion of English Language Learners in Two Brooklyn High Schools. New York: AFC and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
de la Torre, Melissa, and Julia Gwynne. 2009. When Schools Close: Effects on Displaced Students in Chicago Public Schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.
Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project. 2011. Community Policy Report 2011: Going to School and Not Getting an Education. New York: Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project.
Hemphill, Clara, Kim Nauer, Helen Zelon, and Thomas Jacobs. 2009. The New Marketplace: How Small-School Reforms and School Choice Have Reshaped New York City’s High Schools. New York: Center for New York City Affairs, the New School.
Mathis, W. NCLB’s Ultimate Restructuring Alternatives: Do They Improve the Quality of Education? 2009. East Lansing, MI: The Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.