First Person

Closing Schools: A Call for Independent Review

To write that I am a fan of closing failing schools is to fall into the same bombastic trap now enmeshing the Bloomberg administration. Before the Mayor took office, I wrote about the need to take forceful action against these educational mediocrities. But the wholesale closing and opening of schools that the Mayor has embarked upon is not the answer.

Replacing schools does not necessarily improve education. In the Mayor’s hands, it has become a shell game that defers instructional problems until they reappear elsewhere, to be met again with a similar reaction. Meanwhile, the often lengthy period of the schools’ decline — until so drastically and unconstructively arrested — has harmed thousands of students.

Until now, the Mayor’s strategy has been largely immune to public opposition. The Department of Education announced its hit list with little or no prior warning, the better to keep critics at bay. The new school governance statute, however, has created a process for notice and hearings that — while imperfect — will subject this year’s target list to formal scrutiny followed by likely approval by the mayor-controlled Panel for Educational Policy. Students, parents, teachers, and their supporters are organizing to reverse the DOE decree.

This is a public scenario that DOE operatives — probably with the best of technocratic intentions — wanted to avoid. School-based opposition was identified as the Achilles’ heel of reform after the failure of Mayor Giuliani’s initiative to have Edison Schools take over a number of failed schools. Families at the schools voted against the move.

But Bloomberg still seems committed to playing a power game despite the new legal landscape and a public increasingly fed-up with his paternalistic mien. His is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory, with his PEP majority ready to work his will but giving rise to increasingly mobilized school communities that will oppose even justified closings.

This warfare could be avoided if the Mayor took a different, more conciliatory tack. What is needed — both legally and instructionally — is to articulate a clear set of standards for determining school closures, with thorough review of actions taken to avoid the disruption attendant to this last resort and the possible impact of closure on other schools.

The Mayor has created a sense that these closures are less than inevitable but, rather, part of a considered strategy to free up space in certain schools for charters and preferred small schools. Rationales for school closure are a moving target. Some are cited for low graduation rates — though other schools, not slated for elimination, are worse. Or the emphasis shifts to enrollment, or application rates, or whatever other metric might appear deficient either currently or over time. The data seem a pretext for closure and, like so many dominoes, set up a new round of schools predetermined for failure.

These actions give the appearance of illegal caprice: the inconsistent application of otherwise rational criteria so that the action is ultimately unpredictable and subject to whim. If indeed there is a hidden, consistent rationale for these decisions, then it is the Mayor’s obligation to reveal it. Keeping the public off-balance through secrecy is deplorable. This is a typical private-sector strategy based on the competitive edge of proprietary trade secrets. The Mayor’s people still haven’t learned that such tactics are inappropriate in a democracy where an informed public is a paramount, legally-enforceable value.

The more objective, transparent, and deliberative process of school closure suggested here has been used successfully in State registration reviews and finds favor in State law. Education Law § 402-a recommends district creation of an Advisory Committee on School Building Utilization six months before a scheduled school closing, with a clear set of factors for committee review. This is a more independent process than the current New York City formula and could profitably supplement it without sacrificing urgency.

So far, though, Mayor Bloomberg has refused to see the writing on the wall. His unexpected announcement shortly before the holidays, of almost two dozen school closures with a quickly scheduled series of required hearings prior to the PEP determinations on January 26 manifests a continued disdain for the spirit of recent statutory changes.

As a result, the Legislature should publicly contemplate buttressing the new but demonstrably ineffective requirements of Education Law §§ 2590-e(21), 2590-f(1)(w), and 2590-h(2-A) with mandatory application of Education Law § 402-a unless the Mayor recognizes that his policy of intentional opacity will no longer be tolerated.

The days of Oz and the application of naked, self-justifying power are over. If the Mayor is right, then he should step from behind the curtain and allow independent review of his decision to close each school.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.