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Why Are Schools Closed, and What Should Happen Next?

By Deborah Meier — March 24, 2015 6 min read

This week Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan discuss what when a school should be closed, and what should happen along with that decision.

Deborah Meier begins.

Dear Joe,

We’re both partially right about closing schools. I reread Miracle in East Harlem by Sy Fliegel last night. It was written in 1993. It remains an important account. Of course, I’m biased. Chapter 3 is called “Debbie Meier and the Dawn of Central Park East.”

The question becomes one of definition--what constitutes closing a school? Actually, though he mentions “closing” alternative schools (and then usually by renaming them), Sy does not refer to closing any traditional neighborhood schools. All the junior highs in the district were made schools of choice, but they didn’t therefore change their names, staff, or anything else. Except that most were now sharing space with other K-5 and 6-8 schools. Schools and buildings just weren’t synonymous. In the case of JHS 13, where Central Park East Secondary School was started, once choice was instituted almost no one chose 13. It “closed” rather gradually and was replaced by Music 13. Alvarado, Medina, and Fliegel understood something I didn’t yet “get”.

Julia Richman was easier because it was never a neighborhood school and thus had no community base. Its geographic community (the Upper East Side) was rich and white, and local families never sent their kids there. Furthermore, while it was phased out over 4 years, it didn’t share space with their successors. Six new schools were started in interesting created spaces (three of the six never did move to Julia Richman in the end). And one of the five that now occupy that building was started by former Julia Richman staff.

I learned my lesson when we tried to do the same at James Monroe High School in the Bronx. I discovered that even a badly failing high school was usually loved by its neighborhood, its alumnae, and its student body and staff. They had pride in its name, its sports teams, and their memories. Just as they did in their neighborhood. They resented any slurs against it. It seems to be a very human quality--to preserve, to hold onto--that may be as strong or stronger in those with little else to boast about. It’s “ours”. (Similarly, it’s OK to bad-mouth one’s family, but not for others to do so.) History has also taught the community that--as East Harlem now knows--being “saved” may actually be the same as being “removed.” In the clean up, the old are pushed out and realtors grab the land for the benefit of the new neighborhood.

Contrast the District 4 way with Rahm Emanuel’s boasts about closing overnight 50 schools in the predominantly all-Black and Hispanic sections of Chicago. Ditto for Philly. Unlike Fliegel, they boast about closing schools--it demonstrates the accountability of the free market--without apparent awareness of the damage done to human beings.

We should all reread Seeing Like a State, by James Scott. It’s a reminder of why you and I believe: Decisions should be made as close as possible to those who are most affected by them. That’s the “idea” behind democracy.

Joe Nathan responds:

Dear Deb,

It sounds like we agree: Sometimes closing a school can help students. So the key questions are: “When should this be done, and what should happen after the school is closed?” You cited the closure of Julia Richman building in Manhattan. After the large traditional school was closed, groups of teachers were allowed to create new options that were placed in the building. You also mentioned that teachers who formerly worked in the building created one of the new, small schools.

Sounds like many people think Julia Richman is a good example of school closure and renewal. I visited “JREC” several times, including once with a St. Paul Public schools administrator who years earlier, attended Julia Richman when it was one large school. She was very pleased with the conversion into several small schools, a medical clinic, and nursery school. She remembered the large school as a dysfunctional place. Sounds like officials in New York City agreed.

You also mentioned the closure of “JHS 13". You recall: “once choice was instituted almost no one chose 13.” So it was closed.

The two reasons you cited seem reasonable to me. In one case, a school was judged, after many years of low performance, to be dysfunctional. In the second example, officials closed a school when “almost no one chose it.” Harvey Newman, who also worked in East Harlem, agrees that there were other schools closed because of very small enrollment, often accompanied by low performance.

What happens after a school closes is critical. A study by researchers at MIT looked at the creation of more than 150 new small, non-selective high schools in New York City between 2002 and 2008. This was a “reorganization of large comprehensive high schools into small schools with roughly 100 students per grade.” These new small schools “have enhanced autonomy, but operate within-district with traditional public school teachers, principals, and collectively-bargained work rules.”

Researchers used “assignment lotteries embedded in New York City’s high school match to estimate the effects of attendance at a new small high school on student achievement.”

What did they find? “Lottery estimates show positive score gains in Mathematics, English, Science, and History, more credit accumulation, and higher graduation rates. Small school attendance causes a substantial increase in college enrollment, with a marked shift to CUNY institutions. Detailed school surveys indicate that students at small schools are more engaged and closely monitored, despite fewer course offerings and activities. Teachers report greater feedback, increased safety, and improved collaboration.”

Those are encouraging results!

You also mentioned community anger in the Bronx when there was a proposed school closing, and fury in Chicago when about the 50 schools were closed.

Having watched urban and rural schools be closed, I agree that this can provoke widespread, understandable anger. And as I’ll discuss later this week, sometimes there are preferable options to closing schools.

Recently the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington convened a group of African American activists to discuss the relationship between people trying to improve schools and community members. They produced a fascinating, constructive and complex discussion.

One of the speakers was Kenneth Campbell, former CEO of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. He’s a strong advocate for more choice in education - and a strong advocate of working with community members.

Deb, you also cited the Chicago situation. Though I’ve read about this, I don’t know enough to make an informed, constructive comment about those events.

What I DO find encouraging is what happened at Julia Richman, in East Harlem, in the MIT study mentioned above and in Cincinnati, which I wrote about last week.

In each case, closing schools was a last resort. In each case, educators were given a chance to begin anew. The results for students, measured in various ways, were positive overall. But like many things in education, closing a school can be done well, or badly. I hope information we’ve shared helps people consider options. I also hope decision-makers study successful closures when things improved for the involved students.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.