Closing TimeBy Laura Pappano
Will the Kids Be All Right?
When communities are outside the closure conversation, Mapp says it feels as if “reform is done to them, not with them.” That was what Ben Kirshner, assistant professor at the school of education at the University of Colorado – Boulder, found when he tracked the effect of an urban high school closing on its 550 displaced students.
“There was a policy narrative — there are too many seats, budget problems, it’s a chronically bad school, so we are saving these kids by closing it,” says Kirshner. Yet, he says, students did not view the school — with a deep history in the African American community — as a horrible place. He says closure was “interpreted as an attack or something done against their will that was harmful to them.”
Kirshner’s study, published last September in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, showed dropout rates among displaced students rose from 7 to 15 percent; the likelihood of graduating fell from 71 to 49 percent. Study coauthor Matthew Gaertner, who produced calculations for this article that were not part of the published study, said displaced student test scores dropped 12 percent in reading, 9 percent in math, and 19 percent in writing compared with what they would have scored had the school not closed (using modeling developed from historic test data).
The study also included surveys and interviews with 115 displaced students in which 25 percent reported being mistreated by youths or adults at new schools, blamed on the stigma of coming from a failed school. Forty percent described a loss of friendships; 40 percent also reported weaker relationships with adults at their new school. Only 8 percent appreciated the new school’s greater program offerings. Because the study tracked students for just one year after closure it’s possible that they may perform better and feel happier as time passes.
Honoring the History
It is not surprising that a school closure can make a community feel singled out and disrespected. What can leaders do to lessen tensions? In Baltimore, Sarbanes says district leaders must publicly take some responsibility for failed interventions or more that might have been done. And community discussions, he says, must acknowledge that even in troubled schools, good things are happening and there are gifted teachers.
“You have to honor that,” he says. “You want to recognize that people in this school are trying really hard and doing their best. Then you say, ‘Let’s look at the data.’”
In other words, schools being closed cannot be painted with a scarlet F. In fact, Sarbanes says the district created a policy last year aimed at recycling the names of closed schools. When new schools are opened, he says, they look at the list of closed schools to see if the name may be resurrected. These are details that school leaders say allow more latitude for reform. On the other side of the country, keeping a school name was not a question: It was essential to closing Sacramento High School (“Sac High”) in 2003 and reopening it as a charter school with four academies.
“It was the second oldest high school west of the Mississippi and you have so many graduates and alumni who have a really strong connection to the institution,” says P.K. Diffenbaugh, a current student in the Ed.L.D. Program and former principal at a Sac High charter academy. “It’s not as easy as saying, ‘Let’s close it and start fresh.’”
Opposition to the closure was overcome because the incoming charter was run by St. Hope Corp., founded by former NBA star and Sac High alum Kevin Johnson. Diffenbaugh says leaders sought to show respect, keeping the school colors (purple and white), mascot (the dragon), hymn, and motto.
“We really tried to tell the story as, ‘We are not getting rid of this horrible institution’ — although it was failing kids and was a huge injustice — but we tried to tell the public that, ‘We are revitalizing the school to restore its proper place in the community,’” he says.
At the same time, some things had to change — and fast. “Kids had become used to a culture where they could pretty much do what they pleased,” he says. “When we got there, they had ‘Freshmen Fridays.’ Upperclassmen could dump [freshmen] in the trashcan, literally. That had become an accepted rite of passage.” When they halted it, Diffenbaugh recalls, “a lot of kids — and even parents — were pushing back.”