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

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.