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Closing Underperforming Schools

When schools consistently fail to make improvement, the most draconian measure advocated by reformers is closure. Yet little attention has been paid to the experience of cities that have voted to do so. That's why the initial reaction in two districts which have chosen to go down this road is worthwhile studying.

In November, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted to close ten schools ("In North Carolina, a racial uproar over schools stirs old echoes," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 19). What ensued was a backlash not seen for decades in the progressive southern city. The reason was that the student bodies of the schools slated for closure are 95 percent minority, while the district's 135,000-student population overall is 33 percent white.

To better understand the reaction, it's necessary to rewind to 1971 when the U.S. Supreme Court in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education ordered busing to integrate the schools. The plan worked well until the 1990s when newcomers to the area argued that integrated schools lacked academic rigor. In 1999, a federal court put an end to busing, allowing parents to send their children to neighborhood schools. It wasn't long before schools began to resegregate.

Yet the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools were the recipient in October 2010 of the Broad Foundation's prize for being among the top five large districts that have improved learning for poor and minority students.

A similar firestorm took place in Boston, when the school committee (board of education) early this month reluctantly voted to shutter nine schools and merge eight others into four. The decision was caused by a huge budget hole. By its action, the school committee hopes to save up to $20 million by integrating certain services rather than by busing. Another $20 million in savings is expected by closing and merging schools.

Part of the recent tumult has its roots in the 1970s when a federal judge ordered busing to address segregation in Boston's schools. For an eyewitness account of that era, I recommend Southie Won't Go by Ione Malloy (University of Illinois Press, 1986). Although the order was lifted long ago, bitter memories persist.

Boston too was the winner of the Broad Foundation prize. In 2006, it took the honor for its success in improving academic achievement, especially among racial- and ethnic- groups. The district was cited for outperforming demographically similar districts in the state in reading and math in elementary, middle and high school. So impressed was the Los Angeles Times that it published a four-part series on Aug. 6- 10, 2006 under the umbrella "Learning from Boston."

There is a lesson that emerges from both places. When districts decide to close schools on the basis of criteria that parents do not support, they better be prepared for push back. That's because parents feel betrayed. This distrust is evident in both Boston and Charlotte-Mecklenburg. I can't blame parents, particularly when they have not been given an opportunity to voice their opinions before a decision is made. Once school officials lose their trust, it's extremely difficult to regain it.

The next school district that is forced to make the tough decision to close schools needs to involve parents in the decision-making process. Telling them after the fact is not the way to build a partnership.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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