Hard Knocks: NYC Shuts School Doors on Struggling Students

By Michelle Chen Jan 28, 2010

Across New York City, schools are flunking out, and the Mayor’s office is happy to see them go. In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, a contentious all-night meeting ended with the result everyone expected: the city’s Panel for Educational Policy voted to shutter 19 public schools that have been deemed underperforming. The panel, dominated by the appointees of three-term billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was not swayed by the hundreds of protesters who turned out that night—students, teachers and parents—to demand that the city fix their schools rather than close them. The Bloomberg regime is on a crusade to overhaul and replace supposedly failing institutions with smaller schools or charter schools: 91 schools have been slated for closure since 2002. As the crowd shouted him down, Chancellor Joe Klein argued, “The sad reality is that the schools we must close tonight are not meeting the standards.” Yes, those mythical standards. It’s hard to argue against having benchmarks for progress and holding schools responsible for academic performance. And the rhetoric of “accountability” is written all over the Obama administration’s corporatist, top-down education reform agenda under Education Secretary Arne Duncan (who, as the high-profile CEO of Chicago Public Schools, set off a rash of school closures). But critics say standards, tests and other measurements are more politics than science, and are often wielded arbitrarily to target struggling communities. According to an analysis by NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, the more students of color a school has, the greater its chances of getting failing marks:

nearly 20 percent of the 247 schools with the highest proportion of Black and Latino students (between 98 and 100 percent) were either being penalized under the New York City accountability system (had received a D or F for two consecutive years) or were on the road to being penalized (had received a C in one year and a C, D, or F in the other year). None of the schools with the lowest proportion of Black and Latino students (between 6 percent and 39 percent), on the other hand, were being penalized under the system and only five percent were on the road to being penalized.

The New York-based organization Advocates for Children warns that punitive school closures threaten to undermine educational opportunity for the most vulnerable kids, like English language learners, poor Black and Latino youth, homeless children, and students with learning disabilities.

Under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) has pursued an aggressive policy of school closure, which appears to target schools that, as a group, serve disproportionately large numbers of the city’s most at-risk students. A number of the schools – such as Jamaica High School, Columbus, Norman Thomas, and Global Enterprises – have a strikingly high percentage of English Language Learners. Moreover, the schools targeted for closing this year have student bodies that are 17.79% students with documented special education needs (compared to 15.46% citywide), and they have a higher percentage of special education students in self-contained special education classes (8.03% for closing schools, compared to 6.55% citywide), which would tend to indicate a greater level of educational need. It is also notable that the number of students who are homeless at these schools skyrocketed in the past year. While the number of students who are homeless rose by 21% citywide from 2007-08 to 2008-09, it went up by a remarkable 580% on average at the schools slated to be closed. These disparities would be less troubling if we knew that the students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and other at-risk populations in schools previously closed had actually benefited from the closures, but we have seen little evidence of actual benefit to these students. In fact, in the closing school we studied most closely, we saw at-risk students being pushed to leave high school prematurely for GED programs, which are unlikely to meet their needs.

The hearing process, for the most part, was mostly window dressing, but students turned out in droves anyway. For all the emphasis on accountability for schools, the lack of transparency and due process in the city’s decision may have been as offensive to the impacted communities as the closures themselves. The New York Times quoted 17 year-old Felicia Henry, student body president at Paul Robeson High School, reflecting on the “civics lesson” of the political standoff:

“At the end of the day, I fought to keep Paul Robeson open,” she said. “Even if it doesn’t sway the decision, I stood up for something I believe in. I can be proud of myself.”

What does it say about a city’s school system when a student’s proudest moment is defying the officials who refuse to hear her protests? For New York’s most underserved youth, the failure doesn’t come out of their classrooms–it’s handed down from City Hall. Image: Mecea / NY Daily News