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.”

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

new year

Here are the Memphis schools opening and closing this school year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Alcy Elementary Schools is being demolished this summer to make way for a new building on the same property that will also house students from Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools.

Six schools will open and six will close as the new school year begins next month.

This year’s closures are composed mostly of charter schools. That’s a shift from recent years — about two dozen district-run schools have shuttered since 2012. All of the schools opening are charter schools, bringing the district’s total to 57, which is more than half of the charter schools statewide.

Below is a list of closures and openings Chalkbeat has compiled from Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District.

Schools Opening

  • Believe Memphis Academy is a new college preparatory charter school that will focus on literacy while serving students in fourth and fifth grade, with plans to expand to eighth grade.
  • Crosstown High School will focus on creating student projects that solve problems of local businesses and organizations. The school will start with 150 ninth-graders and will be housed in a building shared with businesses and apartments in Crosstown Concourse, a renovated Sears warehouse.
  • Freedom Preparatory Academy will open its fifth school starting with middle schoolers. It will eventually expand to create the Memphis network’s second high school in the Whitehaven and Nonconnah communities.
  • Memphis Business Academy will open an elementary school and a middle school in Hickory Hill. The schools were originally slated to open in 2017, but were delayed to finalize property and financing, CEO Anthony Anderson said.
  • Perea Elementary School will focus on emotional health and community supports for families living in poverty. District leaders initially rejected its application, but school board members approved it. They liked the organization’s academic and community work with preschoolers in the same building.

Schools Closing

  • Alcy Elementary School will be demolished this summer to make room for a new building. It is expected to open in 2020 with students from Charjean and Magnolia elementary schools.
  • Du Bois High School of Arts and Technology and Du Bois High School of Leadership and Public Policy will close. The charter network’s founder, Willie Herenton, a former Memphis school superintendent, said in April the schools are closing because of a severe shortage of qualified teachers.
  • GRAD Academy, part of the Achievement School District, announced in January the high school would close because the Houston-based charter organization could not sustain it. It was the third school in the district to close since the state-run district started in 2012.
  • Legacy Leadership Academy is closing after its first year because the charter organization lost its federal nonprofit status, and enrollment was low.
  • Manor Lake Elementary is closing to merge with nearby Geeter Middle School because low enrollment made for extra room in their buildings. The new Geeter K-8 will join eight others in the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, a neighborhood school improvement program started by Vincent Hunter, the principal of Whitehaven High School.