School Closings

Does closing high schools change student outcomes? It depends on where students go next.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

If Indianapolis Public Schools leaders follow through on their plan to close high schools, it will be painful for families, alumni and neighborhoods. But the impact on current and future students is uncertain.

District leaders have attempted to lessen the pain of high school closures with a promise: The new schools will be better for students, with more advanced classes and more opportunities for students to get specialized career training.

In contrast, alumni, parents and teachers have warned that closing high schools will lead to long bus rides, conflict among students and spikes in dropout rates.

But it’s unclear which vision is more likely. The research on whether closing and combining schools leads to better results for students is mixed. Student outcomes depend on how well the closures are executed and whether the newly consolidated schools offer students a better education.

“The details really do matter and context really matters a lot,” said James Kemple of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools.

Kemple led a study that demonstrates the potential benefits of closing high schools. He found that when New York City closed dozens of low-performing high schools, current students who went through the closures were no better or worse off when it came to data points like their graduation rate. More promisingly, future students — who likely would’ve gone to the schools if they had not closed — were better off, with higher attendance and graduation rates.

But the New York example is different from Indianapolis in a number of ways. The schools were all closed for low-performance, rather than low enrollment, and they were phased out, so current students were not displaced. They also were replaced with new, small high schools that were led by dedicated principals chosen through an application process that required a clear mission and plans for managing staff, curriculum and community partnerships, said Kemple.

“They were really trying to create very strong options for kids in the wake of the school closures,” he said. “That was really important.”

But other research shows potential the downside of closing high schools. One of the most recent studies is a 2016 paper from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, which looked at the impact of high school closures and charter takeovers in both New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The researchers found that in New Orleans, high schoolers whose schools were closed or taken over had higher graduation rates. In contrast, students in Baton Rouge were less likely to graduate.

The researchers offered a fairly simple theory to explain the divide: The New Orleans students ended up in better schools after their schools closed while the Baton Rouge students actually ended up in lower quality schools. “In short, the key to making closures and takeovers work is to ensure that directly affected students end up in better schools after the intervention,” they wrote.

Another useful study comes out of Milwaukee. Like Indianapolis, families in Wisconsin’s largest city can easily choose charter schools or private schools that accept vouchers, and declining enrollment has pushed the district to close dozens of high schools.

Matthew Larsen, an assistant professor at Lafayette College, looked at the effects of high school closures on current — but not future — students in Milwaukee high schools that were closed based on criteria including enrollment and academic performance. For the students enrolled in the high schools when they closed, the impact was detrimental. Despite enrolling in schools that were on average better than the schools that closed, high schoolers had lower GPAs and lower attendance rates, and ultimately, they are less likely to graduate.

School closures are less problematic for elementary students because they eventually bounce back, Larsen said, “but for high school, it’s sort of more of an issue because they don’t have that long to recover, and some of them might be on the margin of dropping out anyway.”

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Another chance

A Brooklyn school on the chopping block will get one more chance to improve

PHOTO: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio testified in Albany on Monday.

A low-performing Brooklyn high school slated for closure is getting a new lease on life.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that the city would give Brooklyn Collegiate: A College Board School a one-year reprieve, citing community pressure.

The small high school in the Brownsville neighborhood was among 14 schools that education department officials recently moved to close after this academic year. Along with eight other schools on the city’s chopping block, Brooklyn Collegiate is part of the mayor’s Renewal program, which attempts to turn around struggling schools by investing extra resources in them and providing additional learning time. Officials also plan to combine another five Renewal schools that enroll very few students.

De Blasio was asked about the planned closure of Brooklyn Collegiate during a state legislative hearing Monday, where Sen. Roxanne J. Persaud noted students don’t have many options in the Brownsville and Ocean Hill area.

In response, de Blasio said city officials decided to put the closure on “pause” after meeting with concerned community members.

“Communities raised excellent points that we want to honor by adding a year and adding some additional investments, and seeing if we can get it to be sustainable on a long-term basis,” he said.

Parents and elected officials have also rallied to save other schools that landed on the city’s closure list, arguing that they were not given enough time to make improvements. The city has not announced any other changes to its closure or merger plans that have sparked a backlash.

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman said that Brooklyn Collegiate will receive coaching for teachers in Advanced Placement courses and “heightened supervision and guidance” from the local superintendent and district support offices.

Last year, only 63 percent of its students graduated — far below the citywide average of 74 percent, but higher than several other Renewal high schools that are not slated for closure. Over the last five years, its enrollment has steadily declined to just over 300 students, and 44 percent of students were chronically absent last year — meaning they missed 10 percent or more of the school year.