[Editor's note: This op-ed was originally published in the Daily News on Dec. 20.]
The Department of Education recently announced the closing of 21 schools — most of them large high schools — in a stated attempt to provide better services to students. The truth is that the students in these schools are poised to become the latest victims of a failed educational strategy — one that ignores the possibility of strengthening schools, closes them on the basis of mysterious and ever-changing criteria and shuffles thousands of our neediest students from one struggling institution to another.
The first problem is how the schools were chosen. According to Mayor Bloomberg, the aim of the latest round of closings is to shut down the system’s lowest-performing schools. While it is true that some of the high schools identified for closure have problems that require drastic action, the list also includes schools that have made progress on every measure. It includes schools where teachers and administrators have gotten bonuses for improving scores. And it includes schools that have never received a progress grade lower than C.
Meanwhile, schools with worse records are permitted to remain open.
What’s more, some of the schools identified for closure are institutions that were functioning well until the DOE accelerated the process of closing large high schools. The plan was to replace the large high schools with smaller ones — but the DOE never created enough seats in the small schools to accommodate all the students who were displaced.
Columbus High School in the Bronx is a perfect example. For years, Columbus was a successful school with a widely diverse student body in terms of student ability and success. Then, DOE policy created a group of small academies that siphoned off many of the highest-achieving pupils — and closed nearby high schools like Adlai Stevenson and Evander Childs. The result was an influx to Columbus of non-English speaking recent immigrants, disabled and special needs students, along with students returning from correctional institutions.
Columbus, faced with a rising percentage of the highest-needs students and no additional support from DOE headquarters at Tweed, saw its attendance and graduation rates fall.
In other words, the administration essentially created the problem it now says it can only solve by closing Columbus.
A similar chain of events played out in many other schools now slated for closing.
But teachers and supervisors at Columbus have developed a range of programs that are working for Columbus students, and the school has been improving on its quality measures of late.
That’s not enough for the DOE — nor is the determination of staff, students and alumni to keep Columbus open. Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein appear determined to phase out this school.
Columbus is far from alone. A study this year by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that thousands of students with low levels of academic achievement who were displaced by school closing in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn ended up in other large high schools in those boroughs, where attendance and graduation rates fell.
Instead of pursuing this misguided policy, we should learn from other cities — where such aggressive school-closing strategies have failed. The Chicago school system used a similar approach between 2001 and 2006, closing 38 schools. A study by the University of Chicago showed that the majority of students displaced by this process ended up in schools that were no better — and in some cases worse — than the schools that they had left.
It’s time the city’s Department of Education changed its policy to help — rather than close — struggling schools.