First Person

Voices: A call for conversation around closing schools

Veteran educator turned consultant Peter Huidekoper, Jr., lays out his thoughts around the pros and cons of closing schools, and calls for more conversation.

Smiley Middle School, which is in the process of being phased out.
Smiley Middle School, which is in the process of being phased out.

Those of us who can sound high and mighty about the need for the closure of low-performing schools often appear deaf to the response of the community in and around these troubled schools.  It is critical we stay attentive to all the factors that make a school closure hard and painful.

I try here to capture a few of these factors and concerns; by sharing this on EdNews, I hope to hear other comments that will shed more light on this issue.

I am one of those who believes that after giving a chronically low-performing school sufficient time and support, when the results stay—tragically, stubbornly—much the same, we serve students best by closing the schools while simultaneously making sure they have a better alternative for the following school year.  I am not alone; this belief is supported, at least as I understand it, by the bipartisan Senate Bill 163 of 2009 on Accountability, which has begun to put dozens of schools on notice that the state could take “dramatic intervention” by 2015 or so, and one of those steps could call for closure.

Many of us also realize it is a controversial idea.  We know that closing schools has been and likely will be mishandled at times (after all, “to err is human”), whether in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C.—or Denver (see Manual High).  Stories in Education Week (“Protesters Decry School Closings in Nation’s Cities,” 2/6/13, and “Study: Cities Face Growing Stock of Shuttered Schools,” 2/20/13) raise important questions about civil rights and closures that “disproportionately” affect poor and minority students.  That latter article stated that a study by Pew Charitable Trusts “says the impact of large-scale public school closures reverberate for years after the buildings themselves are shut down.”

Let me be clear, though, about a critical distinction: my focus here is about closing schools for academic reasons or charters for financial or operational failures. That’s quite a different matter from shutting down a school due to low enrollment and thereby creating a vacant building.  Closure as I discuss it here is not about leaving the building empty.

Many of us are eager to better understand how closing a chronically low-performing school is perceived.  What are the legitimate reasons folks of good-will — who want the best for the students – might insist there is another way than closure?  We know we have much to learn if we are to make good decisions about our lowest-performing schools.

So here’s a rough draft, capturing some of the concerns.  I hope several of you will improve on it.

  • That it hurts parents to be told the school where they send their child is so bad it should be closed, as if parents are somehow to blame for making a poor choice in sending their child to this school.   That it can feel like a slap in the face, as if the parents purchased a defective toy or ill-fitting clothes — and didn’t care about letting their son or daughter down.
  • That it hurts those administrators, teachers, and staff who are keenly aware of the challenges their students face and who give so much of themselves to meet their students’ needs, to then be told the school is performing so poorly it should be closed.  That it hurts to invest so much of yourself in a place and then be told: not good enough.
  • That it hurts the community around the school who know the men and women who work hard in that building, who have earned so much trust and respect over the years, who are now being told the job they do is unsatisfactory, and that the school they have committed themselves to will no longer be allowed to operate—at least not in its current form, not with its current leadership and faculty.
  • That it becomes personal when folks in the community have friends and family working in that school, have personal ties to those who will lose their jobs — those who, members of the community insist, try every day to do their best by the kids.
  • That it angers a community to feel the decision is made by those with little understanding of the context: the issues of poverty, race, immigration, the number of English language learners, etc., often significant factors in the school’s low-performance.
  • That it can feel like one more example of robbing a low-income community of its voice in local affairs, another case of “downtown” or “those people” imposing on the wishes of the families who live and work in that neighborhood.
  • That it can seem small-minded of those in authority to use test scores as a key factor in the decision on closure. That even when the district or state use comprehensive evaluation tools, such as Denver’s Strategic Schools Support Framework, which includes a look at leadership, community support, school climate, community support, and provides for school visits by a team of educators which allows real people to look at the intangibles–in spite of all that, that even such a “broad picture” is mistrusted because somewhere in that long list of metrics is the only one the community believes will really matter: test scores.
  • That it can confuse parents who hear so much talk about the importance of “parent choice,” and then they’re told that they are wrong (or worse) to choose to send their child to a low-performing school, especially one where the men and women in the building are so caring and respectful.  For some parents, that is almost enough to make them want to rally behind the school and keep it alive—whatever the test scores.  But now they’re told this can’t be an option anymore.  Where’s the “parent choice” in that?
  • That it angers parents and a community to feel closure is on the table when other quality choices for their kids are not available (again, see Manual) — or require a dangerous walk to and from that “better” school.
  • That when your school is put “on the clock” (SB 163), or to be more bloody about it, is said to be headed for “the chopping block,” it can damage morale enough to send the school on a downward spiral; it can lead the staff to feel the obstacles to proving sufficient progress over the next year or two are overwhelming, to feel that the district or state is eager to shut it down regardless of any slight improvement it can make….  Thus almost making the “warning” about possible closure a self-fulfilling prophecy: as soon as you tell us we’re a chronically low-performing school, we’ll prove it again this coming year. And how. (See the phase out of Montbello or Rachel Noel).

I am sure I have missed much.  Your corrections and additions are welcome.

 

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.