When a school is failing, is it better to invest in improvements or to close the whole thing down?
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, have spent the past eight years betting on the latter. They’ve closed 91 schools since Bloomberg took office in 2002. Most were large, failing high schools with low graduation rates. The city has replaced them with smaller schools that often share the same buildings. So as a school that’s closing stops accepting ninth graders, two or three new schools typically open in the same building by taking about 100 ninth graders each. The new schools then expand each year, taking sophomores and juniors as the old schools phase-out.
The city believes its approach is working because the small new schools have higher graduation rates. Typically, 75 percent of their students graduate in four years, compared to a citywide average of 59 percent. But the process hasn’t been without frustration and controversy. Some schools are able to co-exist quite peacefully in the same buildings. Others have fierce rivalries and won’t even share the same entrances. These situations can be especially tense in buildings where a charter school shares space with a regular public school, prompting concerns about whether the privately-run charters are taking away valuable public resources. Supporters of charters, however, argue that they’re providing new public options.
Late last month, a state judge blocked the city from closing 19 more schools – 15 of which are high schools. The suit was brought by the local branch of the NAACP and the city’s teachers union. They successfully argued that the city didn’t follow a new law, approved last year by the state legislature, requiring it to conduct a thorough assessment of how closing and opening schools would affect other schools and students. For example, one school has a program for young mothers and the city never said where those students would go instead. The judge also said the city didn’t allow for enough community involvement. A public hearing was conducted before a panel dominated by mayoral appointees voted to close the schools at the end of January. It lasted for more than eight hours – concluding at 3 a.m. – because so many people wanted to speak.
The city is now appealing the judge’s decision. It says it acted within its rights, and in the interest of students who deserve better schools. The mayor also notes that the Obama Administration supports phasing out low performing schools and replacing them with new schools and charters. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has proposed four different ways districts can get federal money to turn around failing schools, in the Obama Administration’s blueprint for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law. They include:
- Transformation – replacing the principal and using a research-based instructional program that provides more time for learning.
- A Turnaround Model – replacing the principal and rehiring no more than half the teachers, along with using a research-based instructional program.
- Restart Model – closing the school and then reopening it with new management or replacing it with a charter school.
- School Closure – closing the school and sending the students to higher-performing schools in the district.
Closing a school is never easy. In New York, it often seems like parents trust the devil they know over the devil they don’t. Many question the city’s commitment to change because they also blame the city for allowing their schools to fail. And teachers worry about their jobs.
New York City has adopted other changes favored by the Obama Administration. It’s built an $80 million web-based computer system for tracking student achievement in every school. And Chancellor Klein wants principals to use student test scores, in part, to determine teacher tenure – a move that’s also prompted a suit by the teachers' union. As the nation’s largest school district, New York City is a lively laboratory for observing many of the changes proposed by the President and Education Secretary Duncan.
Beth Fertig is a Senior Reporter at WNYC Radio. She covers the city’s public schools.