study says...

Bloomberg’s early school closures benefitted future students, new study finds

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of closing bottom-ranked high schools did not harm students at the shuttered schools and benefitted later students who were forced to enroll elsewhere, according to a new study.

The study, which looked at 29 high schools whose closures began during the first half of Bloomberg’s tenure, is sure to rekindle debates over one of the most divisive education policies in the city’s history. It found that students who would have attended the shuttered schools landed at higher-performing schools — in many cases, new small schools that the city created in droves during that 2002 to 2008 period — and ended up with better academic outcomes.

“They were prevented from attending the low-performing schools that were their most likely choice,” said the report’s author, James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a nonpartisan center based at New York University. He said the evidence suggests school closure “may be beneficial, but only if you think about it in the context of providing better options for students and opening up a choice process.”

The new study did not examine how the years-long closure process affected educators, local communities that lost historic institutions, or surrounding schools that absorbed many challenging students. Over the years, the strategy became increasingly unpopular among parents and educators, eventually prompting lawsuits, rancorous public hearings, and scathing criticism by the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, who has largely rejected that approach.

Despite the backlash, high school graduation rates improved under Bloomberg, and this latest study suggests that individual students fared better as a result of the school closures. Former Bloomberg officials seized on the report as another vindication of their approach, while opponents such as the city teachers union downplayed the findings.

Kemple said the closings may have been a “necessary triage” when many large high schools were in a dismal condition. But now that so many of those schools have been replaced, he and other researchers said closure may be less appropriate and less effective as an engine of system-wide change.

“Closing schools is something you only want to do when you’re declaring a state of emergency,” said Leslie Santee Siskin, a research professor at NYU who has studied efforts to reform the city’s high schools but was not involved in the new report. Each closure triggers disruptions that should not be dismissed just because they can be hard to quantify, she added.

“There are costs that don’t get measured in tracking academic performance,” she said.

The city’s four-year graduation rate was 51 percent when Bloomberg took office in 2002, according to the city’s traditional calculations, with many high schools considered unsafe and dysfunctional. His response was to “phase out” 157 schools during his three terms as mayor and create hundreds of replacements, including more than 200 new high schools. (Previous studies have found that certain small high schools outperform other schools, but this study was the first to examine the effects of the city’s school closures themselves.)

High schools closed during the first half of the Bloomberg administration include:

  • 2003-04: John Jay High School
  • 2004-05: South Bronx High School
  • 2005-06: Martin Luther King High School, Morris High School, High School of Redirection
  • 2006-07: Seward Park High School, Park West High School, Manhattan Institute for Academic & Visual Arts, William H. Taft High School, Theodore Roosevelt High School, Prospect Heights High School, Campus Academy for Science and Math, George W. Wingate High School, Bushwick High School
  • 2007-08: Harry Van Arsdale High School, Erasmus Campus – Humanities, Erasmus Campus – Business/Technology, Thomas Jefferson High School, Springfield Gardens High School
  • 2008-09: Walton High School, Evander Childs High School, Comprehensive Night High School of Brooklyn

The targeted schools were among the worst in the city on several measures, yet other schools with similar records evaded closure, the report found. The shuttered schools served a percentage of poor students and ones with special needs comparable to the city average, but a far higher share of students who had struggled in middle school.

The closure process, which was fiercely resisted by the teachers union and many community groups, was widely considered demoralizing for educators and destabilizing for some students. It slowly drained the schools of students and funding, causing advanced courses and enrichment programs to vanish, as new schools took their place.

Yet the report found that the process did not have a statistically significant impact — either positive or negative — on the academic performance or attendance of students who remained at the schools during their multi-year phaseouts. It did prompt a disproportionate number of students to transfer to different schools, but not to drop out of school entirely.

Those students who switched to different schools did worse academically than students who stayed at the closing schools, the report found. That finding confirms the fear of many teachers that students who fled closing schools stumbled in their new surroundings, and those who failed to graduate before their schools closed faced uncertain futures.

“There’s a whole bunch of kids who fell through the cracks,” said Stefanie Siegel, a former teacher at Paul Robeson High School, which closed in 2014 and was not one of the schools analyzed in the report.

After the closure of the 29 high schools featured in the report, incoming freshmen found a variety of other options.

On average, the students who would have attended each shuttered school fanned out to 82 different schools, though nearly 45 percent enrolled in schools in the same buildings as those that closed, the study found. The schools where they landed tended to be smaller than the closed schools, with higher graduation rates and students who had performed better in middle school.

At those schools, the students’ attendance and graduation rates were higher than their peers’ had been at the schools that closed. However, the report points out that their outcomes still were not great: even in those different schools, only 56 percent of the students graduated within four years.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew highlighted that part of the report, as well as its finding that some low-performing schools that dodged closure during that period managed to improve. For those reasons, he said in a statement Wednesday, the “report shows that closing schools is no route to real progress for our students.”

But two of Bloomberg’s former school chiefs released their own statement saying that the latest study added to a “a steady drumbeat of research” that shows his strategy of closing troubled schools and opening small ones worked.

“Today’s study from NYU shows thousands of students graduated who otherwise would not have because the Mayor chose to focus on what was right for kids,” Joel Klein and Dennis Walcott said.

De Blasio has disparaged that approach, saying Bloomberg opted to condemn schools rather than fix them, treating closure as a “panacea.” In a major reversal, he has stopped targeting low-performing schools for closure, and instead selected 94 of them to receive nearly $400 million in assistance over three years through his “Renewal” turnaround program.

Still, he has been reluctant to completely abandon closure, which Bloomberg’s allies and some state officials have argued is a crucial tool for accountability. So he has insisted that he will consider shuttering schools that flounder despite the city’s help.

“As the Mayor and Chancellor have made clear, we must give schools aggressive supports to turnaround, including an extended school day, community school services, targeted teacher training and curriculum overhauls,” said education department spokeswoman Devora Kaye, “but we will also not hesitate to close schools that have the opportunity to improve and do not.”

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

Family Hubs

Why the Detroit district is turning its adult ed centers into places where families can find helpful services

PHOTO: Lori Higgins
Detroit Superintendent stops at one of the many community agencies that will be providing resources to the family hubs that will open in adult education centers in the district.

The Detroit school district is turning its two adult education centers into sites that will give parents access to a number of academic and community resources in one spot.

It’s a crucial part of Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s rebuilding effort, because it goes beyond trying to fix curriculum and system failures, and instead works to connect with parents.

“It’s about breaking down walls and barriers and saying, ‘We don’t have all the answers, but we have access to resources that we want to give to you.’ You come in, you start to trust us, gain those resources and fill gaps in your own lives … So we can all do right by children.”

The family hubs, which will open in January, will be located at the district’s Adult Education Center East at 13840 Lappin and at the Adult Education Center West at 16164 Asbury Park. Both centers already offer a range of programming to help older students and adults earn high school diplomas or GEDs, while providing services such as tutoring and career exploration.

Now, those two sites will offer much more, including courses offered through the district’s Parent Academy that help parents learn how to help their children. And, thanks to partnerships with a number of community organizations, parents can also take advantage of other services, such as job training, home ownership classes, and mental health services. There will also be food and clothing donations.

PHOTO: Lori Higgins
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announces the creation of family hubs to connect parents with resources.

“By concentrating in one location, we eliminate that red tape and that bureaucracy,” Vitti said at an event announcing the family hubs this week.

“You come here thinking, ‘I’m just going to learn about literacy,’ and then you find out there’s an opportunity to pay a light bill or there’s an opportunity to get job development.”

Iesha Spencer was among the parents the district sought feedback from as the hubs were being developed. She’s a student at the Adult Education Center West.

The hubs, Spencer said, “will be a great opportunity for families to all come together and learn and grow.”

PHOTO: Lori Higgins
A representative of a community organization talks to those attending an event to announce the creation of family hubs in the Detroit school district.

Among the partners who are part of the hubs is the Detroit Training Center, which provides job training in a number of areas, including construction trades, building maintenance, and blight removal. The company will provide some of that training at the hubs.

“If you’re looking for a job, come on down,” Patrick Beal, CEO of the Detroit Training Center, said at the event.

There also will be other activities, such as family dinner clubs, crochet clubs and book clubs, said Sharlonda Buckman, an assistant superintendent in the district.

“We also want to socialize and have fun together. This is about building a social network,” Buckman said.

These are the partners working with the district in the hubs:

 

  • Accounting Aids Society
  • Black Mothers Breast Feeding
  • Detroit Health Department
  • Detroit Land Bank
  • Detroit Parent Network
  • Detroit Training Center
  • Doors of Success
  • Dress for Success
  • Focus Hope
  • Forgotten Harvest
  • Western Michigan University

Want to take advantage of the hubs? You can visit the district’s web site here.

closures ahead

New York City will close another round of schools in de Blasio’s Renewal turnaround program

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman/Chalkbeat
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a previous set of closure plans.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is widely expected to wind down his signature program for struggling schools. But before he does, city officials are planning to close a handful of turnaround schools, decisions that will be announced publicly in January.

The city has closed 14 Renewal schools since the program launched in 2014 with 94 schools. Now, the education department is poised to close more, according to a senior department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Decisions about which schools will be on the chopping block have not yet been formally made, the official said. But the education department is planning to close fewer than last year, the largest single round of Renewal closures to date, when seven schools were ultimately shuttered.

It’s not entirely surprising that the department is eyeing additional closures. Though de Blasio has said they are a “last resort,” the city began closing some of the 94 original Renewal schools within a year of the program’s launch.

The closure decisions again throw the $750 million turnaround program into the spotlight, underscoring that despite a raft of extra social services and academic support, the extra resources have largely not lived up to the mayor’s promise of “fast and intense” improvements.

The looming closures also raise questions about the future of school turnaround in New York City. De Blasio has said the program, which is in its fourth year of what was initially described as a three-year effort, is reaching its “natural conclusion,” and that decisions about the 50 remaining Renewal schools will be made by the end of this school year. Yet city officials have declined to explain what will happen to schools that will avoid closure and have not made enough progress to leave the program.

“There’s a great deal of uncertainty about what their futures are,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College who has studied the turnaround program. “The chancellor hasn’t said much of anything that is suggestive of a comprehensive strategy of dealing with the remaining Renewal schools in particular, or struggling schools in general.”

When the Renewal initiative launched, city officials framed it as the antithesis of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s approach, which involved closing over 150 schools and replacing them with new — often smaller — ones. Research has found that strategy showed some promise. But it also drew fierce protest from teachers, union officials, and disrupted long-standing neighborhood institutions. A number of the new schools continued to struggle, however, and would eventually become Renewal schools.

By contrast, de Blasio sought to keep schools open whenever possible. The city instead gave low-performing schools additional funding, access to non-profit organizations that would help provide physical and mental health services, and academic resources, such as additional teacher training and leadership coaches.

Research on de Blasio’s approach shows its effect on school improvement has been mixed at best. And the New York Times recently reported that city officials initially predicted that about a third of schools in the program would never make significant strides.

Of the 94 original schools, 14 have been closed, nine have left the program after being merged with other schools, and city officials said 21 have shown enough progress to slowly ease out of Renewal. No schools have been added to the program since it began.

An education department spokeswoman did not respond to specific questions about the program and the city’s future plans for struggling schools, including how closure decisions will be made. In the past, officials said they consider a range of factors, including schools’ academic performance, feedback from families, staff turnover, and previous improvement efforts.

Increases in graduation rates and test scores have not been enough to spare some schools from being shuttered — and the city has even closed schools that have met a majority of their goals.

“We believe in investing in our schools,” education department spokeswoman Danielle Filson said in a statement. “We will share an update on the Renewal program by the end of the school year.”

Many Renewal schools still post test scores and graduation rates that are far below average, which could invite extra scrutiny. At Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx, 57 percent of students graduate on time — roughly 20 points below the city average. At I.S. 117, 8 percent of students passed state math tests last year, and 16 percent were proficient in reading — an increase from 2015 when just 5 percent of students were proficient in either subject, though still far below average.

If Renewal schools performing below expectations avoid closure, it’s unclear how the city will continue to intervene to improve them. City officials have said Renewal schools will not lose the extra funding they received, or their “community school” designations, which are a core element of the Renewal program and allow schools to partner with nonprofit organizations and offer a range of social services, including mental health counseling and dental clinics.

Some observers said it’s possible the city won’t replace Renewal with another distinct turnaround program, especially since it has created headaches for de Blasio, and instead opt for a squishier system of support for struggling schools.

“That would be the politically wise way to go,” said Robin Veentstra-VanderWeele, the chief program officer at Partnership with Children, which serves as the nonprofit partner in eight city turnaround schools. “If you don’t tell anyone what the target is they don’t know what to shoot.”