The Administration’s default response to struggling schools has been to close them, without first investing enough time and resources into turning them around. And instead of laying out a thoughtful plan for some schools to share facilities in the same building – co-location – the Administration turns a cold shoulder to community input. We need a new approach for our city’s one million students.
There is a time and place to close a troubled school. But that should not be treated as an end goal in itself, nor an accomplishment to boast about. It should be the last resort, when all other options are exhausted.
Take the story of William H. Maxwell High School in East New York, a school that for years ranked on the persistently low-achieving list. Five years ago, it earned an F rating on its progress report and had a huge truancy problem. And then the school community came together.
Principal Jocelyn Badette started personally calling and meeting with parents to get truancy under control. Teachers started working until 5 p.m. helping tutor their students after hours and catching them up. Math, reading and science scores are all up. The graduation rate has doubled since 2005. Maxwell went from an F to A’s and B’s on its recent cards.
Then what happened? Did the city applaud the parents and faculty for their efforts? Did its lessons get applied elsewhere in the school system? No. The Department of Education decided to close Maxwell High School and fire half of its faculty as part of its “turnaround” program.
Let’s get this straight: the actual turnaround had already happened, and yet the Department of Education tried to fire the very people responsible. Fortunately, we stood with the school community and fought back the closure with intense public pressure. It was a happy ending, but it points to exactly what has gone wrong under the current approach.
Collaborating with community members – and really listening – should serve as a prerequisite for potential school closings. Too many of the schools doomed for closure have not been given the tools to improve, or the time to apply them.
Students at low-performing schools often need the most support. But the Administration constantly misses the opportunity to pinpoint troubled schools, invest in them, and turn them around. Too often, the Administration opts for the easier route – school closure.
DOE’s policies have actually amplified the core problems that contribute to chronic poor performance. Adding more high-need students to poorly resourced and already-underperforming schools is just one example. The end result? Performance results for our highest-need students have hardly budged, and educational disparity continues to besiege our city.
We see the same heavy-handedness in the way the city often shoehorns charter schools into existing public schools, without a well-considered strategy for both institutions to thrive. Co-location can be – and has been - successful in this city. Students at four high schools in the Brandeis Educational Complex, on the Upper West Side, learned beautifully side-by-side—until the DOE shoved a charter elementary school into the building, despite staunch resistance from the school community.
Successful sharing of space and resources can only be carried out through meticulous planning and input from all key stakeholders - students, parents, teachers, administrators, community activists and education advocates. Instead, the DOE has alienated school communities by neglecting their input and depriving them of a venue for meaningful engagement on educational policy.
As a public school parent, I know the difference being involved in your children’s education can make in their academic success and self-confidence. That’s personal to me, and that priority is reflected in the recommendations my office put forth in 2010 and 2011 to modify Educational Impact Statements and boost parental engagement.
But the Administration failed to take our recommendations on community involvement and use of physical space seriously, resulting in a co-location process that is consistently divisive and poorly attuned to the physical demands of mutually-sited school communities.
That’s why, following Mayor Bloomberg’s latest announcement on school closures, I called on the Administration to freeze school closures and co-locations for the rest of the mayor’s term.
Until we can offer a comprehensive, community-driven plan for co-locations and school turnaround, I urge you to join me in pressuring the Mayor to put a one-year moratorium on these divisive tactics. After years of disruption instead of progress, inequity instead of opportunity, haste instead of prudence - enough is enough.
Bill de Blasio is New York City Public Advocate.