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Latest Round of School Closings Sparks Heated Opposition

by Gail Robinson, Jan 25, 2010
 
Images (c) pitirrefili
Students, parents, teachers and community groups gathered at Maxwell High School last December to protest the school's closing.

Standing in front of a crowd at Abyssinian Baptist Church, Danisha Williams spoke about how she had continued on after losing her mother and father.

"The teachers at Maxwell said, 'Danisha, you're too strong. There's no such thing as giving up,'" she related. "It changed me from the clothes I wore, the way I spoke, the way I looked at things." And so, she said, "I did it."

To officials at the Department of Education, William H. Maxwell Career and Technical School is a place that receives D's on its progress reports and where only 43 percent of students graduate within four years -- in short a school that "had not made sufficient progress for its students."

The department has decided to close Maxwell along with 20 other schools throughout the city that, by the department's measures, fail to meet the needs of the young people they are supposed to educate. To some students, teachers and community residents, though, these schools, however poor their performance may look on paper, have changed lives and anchored neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, the city's Panel on Educational Policy will consider the closings and, most observers expect, approve them. But during a 45-day comment period, opponents have mobilized support, held demonstrations and lined up backing from elected officials.

The fight over these schools, in short, has shaped up as just the kind of messy public debate Mayor Michael Bloomberg hoped mayoral control could avoid.

A Platform for Protest

Since taking control of the city's school system, the Bloomberg administration has closed 91 schools. While protests, as well as legal challenges, occurred in the past, this year's criticism has been particularly vociferous.

The state legislature probably deserves much of the credit or blame for that. Under changes to the system of mayoral control adopted by the legislature last summer, the Panel on Educational Policy, the largely toothless body that replaced the old Board of Education, must approve any school closings. Given that the legislature left the board's structure intact -- the mayor appoints a majority of the members, and they serve at his pleasure rather than for fixed terms -- that change is unlikely to result in the rejection of any proposed closings. But it does provide opponents with a rallying point.

And they have seized it. Many of the critics see the closing as emblematic of what they do not like about Bloomberg's education policies: what they see as an over-reliance on numbers, a failure to consult with the community and neglect of some of the system's most challenging students. With the mayor seen as having lost some of his luster -- and with a new teachers' union president whose rhetoric, if not action, is more combative than that of his predecessor -- teachers, parents and some elected officials have been willing and even eager to speak out.

In response the Department of Education first agreed to move the Panel for Educational Policy meeting from Staten Island, where it was originally slated to take place, to Brooklyn Tech in Fort Greene. It then cleared many unrelated items off Tuesday’s agenda. Meanwhile, the United Federation for Teachers, which has come out against the closings, has scheduled a protest across the street.

The Price of Failure

The schools on the list represent a range -- they even include some small schools started under the mayor, such as Kappa II, an elementary school in Harlem, and Academy for Environmental Science Secondary School.

In the administration's view, they all share one thing: These schools, the administration says, have simply failed the children of the city.

According to the department, its criteria for closing schools is clear. Any school that received a D or an F on its most recent progress report or C's for three consecutive years is a candidate. The department says it also weighs the more descriptive quality reviews on culture and teaching practices as well as community opinion reflected in surveys and the number of students who apply to the school. And, according to Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the Department of Education, the department also speaks with people involved with the school and community.

So for example, Paul Robeson High School is on the closure list, Eric Nadelstern, chief schools officer in the Department of Education has written, partly because less than two thirds of its students said they felt safe there and its enrollment has been shrinking.

In discussing this year's list, Nadelstern wrote, "Some of these schools have storied histories and large numbers of faithful alumni. All have students and staffs who work hard and still believe in the school’s potential." However, he continued, as things stand now, "they are failing to educate most of their students."

In most cases, students already at the schools can finish out their educations there, as the schools are, in the administrations words, phased out. Meanwhile, one or more new schools likely will be launched in the existing space So far, most of those announced with be regular public schools although at least two will be publicly financed but privately run charter schools.

At the same time the city has shut 90 schools, it has opened 325 small schools.

Does Size Matter?

The bulk of the schools this year are high schools, largely, Kanner said, because most elementary schools have done well on their progress reports. But the closings of so many large schools in combination with those shut in the past will continue the administration's move away from the large comprehensive high schools and toward smaller schools, many with a theme.

For example, according to an analysis by Gotham Schools, a new school called the Academy for Health Careers will set up in Maxwell. Two new schools -- the High School for Community Leadership and Hillside Arts and Letters Academy -- will occupy the Jamaica High School Building.

Kanner said the city does not plan to eliminate all large schools but it is, he said, committed to doing what works. "Our focus is on results for students," he said. "If it works, we're going to try it, and that's what we're doing."

The city thinks the small schools work. According to its figures, they have a graduation rate of 75 percent, compared to about 60 percent citywide.

Critics of the department say the administration has stacked the deck. At least in their early days, new small schools did not have to take any special education students or English language learners. Kanner said that this has changed.

However, by most accounts, the schools facing closure still have a disproportionate number of students who may need extra help, such as special education students and English language learners.

A study by Jackie Bennett found that students at the closing schools came in with lower achievement levels as measured by eighth grade test scores. The prevalence of homeless students is particularly striking. The number of these students more than doubled in 19 of the schools slated for closure, according to the Daily News.

The Department of Education denies it penalizes schools that have challenging students. Schools, Kanner said, are ranked not against a kind of platonic ideal or even a citywide or borough-wide figure but against a so-called peer group of 39 schools with similar student bodies. So, for example, 30 percent of students at PS 332 are in special ed, which presents a legitimate challenge. But, he said, others schools with so many special ed student are doing a better job.

The peer groups, though, are not adjusted every year, which could create problems if a school has a sudden and sizable influx of hard-to-teach kids.

The critics also dispute the administration's choice of and use of figures. For instance, said James Eterno, a teacher fighting the closing of Jamaica High School, the four-year graduation rate may not be a meaningful measure in a city where so many students come from other countries.

Recipe for Failure

Supporters of some of the schools on the close list say they almost were set up to fail. Jamaica High School has seen its "secretarial staff slashed from 35 to 5, insufficient guidance personnel and a relatively new principal," Eterno and Arthur Goldstein, both chapter leaders of the United Federation of Teachers, have written. Now, they say, the department plans to lavish money "on new schools that will take years to grow" and will be less likely to accept the "non-traditional 'over the counter' pupil that Jamaica accepts."

In fact, the administration's critics. charge some of the schools on the failing list are failing at least partly because they accepted students pushed out of other closed schools or who could not get into the newer and smaller schools.

Christine Rowland, a Columbus teacher and advocate for that school, said that Columbus' top students tended to enroll in new programs set up in and around that school. This left Columbus, she said, having to deal with classes that are "more challenging both academically and behaviorally."

Beach Channel High School's fate was sealed when the Department of Education shut Far Rockaway High School and many of its students turned up at Broad Channel.

By the administration's own figures, the new small schools will not have enough slots to accommodate all the students who once attended the larger school in the same building. The health career school at Maxwell, which currently has an enrollment of 985, will have 425 to 450 seats. Beach Channel, with 1,345 students, is slated to be the home of a school focusing on environmental sustainability with room for 400 to 500 students. Of course, the department could opt to add more schools in the future. But for some of the schools, such as Paul Robeson, the administration has not yet announced any replacement, fueling anxiety.

Under Bloomberg, closing schools, "has become an educational shell game that defers instructional problems until they reappear elsewhere, to be met again with a similar reaction," David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leader and law at Brooklyn College who supports taking strong action against poor schools, wrote recently. In the process, he said, it "has harmed thousands of students."

Kanner strongly disagrees. "There has been no evidence to suggest the closing of a nearby school negatively impacts the schools in the community," he said.

Certainly people will appear on Tuesday and contest that. They will also dispute figures. And most of all they will cite their allegiance to schools that, while by some measures seem to be failing, have proved successful for them. A school, said Christina Rowland, the Columbus teacher, "is so much more than statistics."


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