Black Children Deserve the Stability That Neighborhood Schools Offer

School closures are the not-so-distant cousins of policing, housing and health policies that seek to unearth, delete or disperse community assets as a way to improve outcomes.

Some of the 11 students of the first and last graduating class of Livingston High School celebrating after their commencement June 3, 2008, in New Orleans. The school was set to close that summer with plans for a new elementary school to be built on the grounds.
Some of the 11 students of the first and last graduating class of Livingston High School celebrating after their commencement June 3, 2008, in New Orleans. The school was set to close that summer with plans for a new elementary school to be built on the grounds. Mario Tama/Getty Images

School closure is a tactic we don’t have to take.

Under the new national education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, states have been freed to employ strategies they deem fit just as long as they act on the bottom 5 percent.

When we’re talking about improving urban districts, though, we always seem to land on the “solution” of closing them.

Black communities are constantly losing the anchor institutions we actually need strengthened.

Within those very districts, there are schools that offer somewhat of a model. The elements that make those schools successful could be replicated in others if we valued the teachers and leaders enough to build their capacity. We build people’s capacity when we believe they can improve.

The Education Research Alliance of Tulane University earlier this month released “Extreme Measures: When and How School Closures and Charter Takeovers Benefit Students” (pdf).

The study examined the effects of school closures in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., from 2008 to 2014 to show that school closures can have positive effects on student outcomes.

“What gets measured gets done.” If research never leaves the confines of the “gap closing” framework, “growth” will always burden black families—not the institutions that caused inequities in the first place. Being compared with whites, which gap-closing work and research constantly reinforce, insidiously assumes that white institutions and people are not problems to be solved.

Many other urban districts, including Newark, N.J., Oakland, Calif., and Philadelphia, have used school closure as an approach to improve overall performance while reducing the number of ineffective institutions.

The theory is, if you close failing schools and move students into better ones, you’ll get better educational options and eventually outcomes.

There are many ways to close schools and various reasons why. The most extreme kind of closure is to completely shutter a building. In August, Michigan school officials warned that they might shutter schools that performed on the state’s exams among the bottom 5 percent, which represents more than 100 schools. This would be the most aggressive action taken by a state.

Most “closures” translate to reconstituting a school’s leadership and/or staff to varying degrees. And most closures aren’t due to academic performance. Demographic shifts and finances are two common reasons schools close. However, using closure as a gap-closing strategy has been encouraged by the highest levels. “Too many administrators are unwilling to close failing schools and create better options for these children,” said former Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a speech to charter school leaders.

In the Tulane study, the findings are rather intuitive. Students formerly in failing schools that ended up in higher-performing schools showed better outcomes. There wasn’t a guarantee that students ended up in better schools after these actions. Baton Rouge’s student outcomes actually got worse, largely because students ended up in schools that were weaker than those that were closed. The most significant finding was: “The positive effects of closure and takeover in New Orleans explain 25 to 40 percent of the total effect of the New Orleans post-Katrina school reforms on student achievement.” This finding suggests that school closure is a tool worth keeping.

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