the consequences of closure

Schools with more students of color are more likely to be shut down — and three other things to know about a big new study

Student protested school closures in 2010.

Shutting down schools with low test scores doesn’t help student learning and disproportionately affects students of color, according to one of the largest studies ever of school closures.

The results, released Thursday by the Stanford-based group CREDO, indicate that closing a school doesn’t help student achievement as much as advocates have hoped — or harm it as much as some have feared.

The findings, the researchers write, “call for caution in implementing this bold policy measure.”

The study examines school closures in 26 states, from 2006 to 2013. Shuttering schools — both for financial and performance reasons — has become a common, contested phenomenon in a number of cities. High-profile education leaders like Joel Klein in New York City and John White in Louisiana have pushed school closures as a necessary, even moral, response to low performance.

Here are four things we learned from the report.

1. Closures don’t help (or substantially hurt) student achievement on average.

Overall, being displaced from a low-performing school had virtually no effect on student test scores. This undercuts rhetoric that closing “failing” schools will help students, as well as that it will dramatically harm their academic trajectories.

One caveat is that the study defines low performance of schools using absolute test scores — not how much a school’s students improve, a metric most researchers say is better for measuring school quality. Past studies in New Orleans and Ohio have found closures based on academic growth do help student learning.

Another caution is that it’s unclear just how similar the schools being compared to one another actually are. The researchers compare displaced students’ performance to students in low-achieving schools that were not shut down. If the low-scoring schools that remained open were on a more positive trajectory or had just hired a dynamic new principal, for example, that might skew the comparison.

2. When students move to higher-achieving schools they do better, but when they switch to similar schools they do worse.

Unsurprisingly, students who switched from a lower-achieving school that closed to a significantly higher achieving school — about half of the displaced students — saw their scores improve, relative to similar students whose schools weren’t closed. This is consistent with common sense and past research.

However, switching to a similarly achieving school caused a decline in test scores, perhaps because of the disruption of moving schools.

And switching to a school with lower test scores led to even bigger drops in achievement. This was relatively rare, though — in part because few schools had significantly worse test scores than the ones that closed.

3. Schools that serve more black and Hispanic students are more likely to be shut down.

Critics of school closures have long argued that they disproportionately impact — even target — black and Hispanic communities. The latest research gives some credence to this view.

It shows that schools serving a larger share of students of color were somewhat more likely to be shut down than schools with fewer students of color and similar achievement. There was also some evidence that higher poverty schools were more likely to be closed.

4. Lower-achieving charter schools are more likely to close than traditional public schools.

The study finds that 5.5 percent of low-scoring charter schools were closed down from 2006 to 2013, as compared to 3.2 percent of district schools.

One notable exception: Michigan. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has argued that traditional schools there lack accountability because, she said, none has ever been closed for low performance. But many have shut down, presumably for other reasons. In the time period studied, 9 percent of low-achieving Michigan district schools were shuttered, compared to less than 6 percent of low-scoring charter schools.

Four key questions the study doesn’t answer:

1. Why do low-achieving schools with more students of color close more often?

One explanation is simple: racism and lack of political power. School closures are controversial and often draw serious opposition. Students and families of color may be less successful in opposing closures if policymakers are less sympathetic to their claims.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which advocates for closing persistently low-performing charters, implicitly acknowledged that possibility.

“We are especially troubled by the report’s observation of different school closure patterns based on race, ethnicity, and poverty,” president Greg Richmond said in a statement. “These differences were present among both charter schools and traditional public schools and serve as a wake-up call to examine our practices to ensure all schools and students are being treated equitably.”

But the study can’t explain why closures happen more often in certain communities. For instance, if low-achieving schools with many white students are especially likely to be located in rural areas where there are fewer alternative schools, that may help explain the results.

Another explanation could be that the expansion of charter schools in high-minority areas puts additional fiscal and enrollment pressure on districts and charters — as charters expand, other schools may close as their enrollment declines.

What is clear, though, is that black and low-income students and communities are especially likely to have a school closed.

2. How do school closures affect the students who would have gone on to attend schools that were shut down?

The study examined students who were directly affected by closures, not future students who might have otherwise attended a closed school. In one of the only studies to examine this question, those “future” students who would have otherwise attended a closed school were significantly more likely to graduate high school.

3. How do school closures affect things other than test scores?

The latest study only looks at test scores. But critics argue that shuttering a school negatively affects a community, economically and socially, and harms students in ways beyond academic achievement. Some past studies have examined student attendance, high school graduation, and college enrollment, generally showing mixed results.

4. How do school closures affect students at receiving schools?

The CREDO report doesn’t look at how an influx of new students affect the new schools they move to. Past studies have found evidence that receiving schools see a dip in student achievement as a result. This points to potential unintended consequence of closures, even when the directly affected students benefit.

This story has been updated to clarify that the effects on achievement were estimated by comparing students in closed schools to similar students at schools that were not closed.

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”

 

School closings

Breaking: High school teachers across Indianapolis Public Schools may need to reapply for their jobs

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

High school teachers across Indianapolis Public Schools may need to reapply for their jobs as part of a district-wide reconfiguration.

That includes teachers at high schools that are remaining open as well as those at schools that will close at the end of this year. The plan was announced to teachers yesterday, less than 24 hours after the IPS board approved a proposal to close three high schools.

The goal is to make sure that teachers are well matched with their schools, said Mindy Schlegel, who heads human resources for the district. Even schools that remain open will dramatically change under the high school reconfiguration plan, she said. They will have new specialized magnet academies and, potentially, new leaders.

“We really wanted to give teachers the opportunity to learn more,” she said, “and find the right fit for them.”

Teachers may not get their first choice position because school leaders will be able to interview and select teachers. But the district doesn’t expect any teachers to lose their jobs, Schlegel said.

But while Schlegel framed the decision as a move to help teachers find jobs they like, union leader Rhondalyn Cornett was concerned it could push educators to leave the district.

“This is like a total disruption at one time,” Cornett said.

Since the announcement, Cornett has received dozens of texts and emails from concerned teachers. Teachers say they feel like they have sacrificed because they love the district, and now they are being treated like they are pawns, she said.

“I mean,” she added, “why wouldn’t they feel like that?”

Under the high school reconfiguration plan approved Monday, Broad Ripple High School and John Marshall Middle School will close. The Northwest and Arlington high school campuses will be converted to middle schools.

Four high schools will remain open: Crispus Attucks, Shortridge, George Washington and Arsenal Technical high schools.

Teachers will have a chance to learn more about the programs and leadership at each high school in October or November, Schlegel said. Then, the human resources department will schedule interviews for teachers at their first choice schools.

“Closing four buildings is a big shakeup, so I’m not sure that we can avoid so much disruption,” she said. “We are really trying to handhold teachers through this process so they land in the right spot.”

Some teachers won’t need to go through the transfer process, including those who have received special training to teach International Baccalaureate courses, arts specialists, life skills teachers and career and technical teachers. Schlegel said some of those educators may switch buildings, but they will stay in the same positions.

Teachers in core content areas, such as English and math, however, will need to go through the application process even if they wish to stay at their current campus.