School Closure: A Tragic Turnaround Strategy

Chicago’s Dyett High School, which had been phased out by the school district beginning in 2012, will be re-opened as an open-enrollment, arts-focused high school for 550 students.  The school was slated for closure following the graduation of 13 students last June at the end of the phase-out process. A dozen protesters, led by Jitu Brown of Chicago’s Kenwood Oakland Community Association, are responsible for the re-opening of Dyett as a neighborhood high school.  Since August 17, the protesters have conducted a hunger strike to protest the school’s closure.

As the Chicago Public Schools capitulated by agreeing to re-open the school, Jitu Brown commented: “We are happy the school is opening as a neighborhood CPS-run school.  All is not lost.  But what we want is what the community demanded.”  Earlier this year, when the school district had issued a request for proposals (RFP), citizens of the neighborhood had submitted a proposal for a school with a focus on green energy and global leadership, with support from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Education and the Chicago Botanical Gardens, which Chicago Catalyst reports “had agreed to partner with Dyett under the proposal submitted by activists.”

CPS has declared that the school will have an arts, not a science, focus, in honor of the school’s namesake, Walter Henri Dyett, a DuSable High School music teacher known for educating a number of Chicago’s great jazz musicians.  Although the school district described its agreement to re-open Dyett as a high school with an arts focus as “a compromise” (intended to end the hunger strike), the protesters continue to declare that their hunger strike is about something much larger—the autocratic, top-down management of a school district that has persistently disdained the Chicago neighborhood communities the public schools are said to serve. While Dyett High School will re-open to serve the neighborhood, the District’s leaders ignored the wishes the community has been expressing through the hunger strike and that they framed several months ago in a formal proposal.

School closure is one of the four approved, top-down “turnaround” plans prescribed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act for schools unable to raise test scores after several years. The implication of the “turnaround” language, of course, implies that somehow closure will inspire rebirth, but too often school closure has meant not only the death of the school but also the demise of the neighborhood for which the school was the institutional anchor.

School closure was a favorite plan of New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellor, Joel Klein, writes Jelani Cobb in an extraordinary New Yorker profile of New York’s Jamaica High School, closed last June.  Over the years Bloomberg and Klein closed 74 schools.  In 2010, Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his public schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett closed 50 schools.  Adrian Fenty, Washington, D.C.’s mayor, and his superintendent Michelle Rhee closed two dozen schools—one of the factors that is said to have precipitated his defeat in a subsequent election.  Quoting the phraseology used by Joel Klein to justify New York City’s school closures and the co-location of a number of small high schools into the buildings that had housed the comprehensive high schools, Cobb explains: “The real problem was that the schools had ‘started getting many kids who were low-performing and entering high school a couple of years behind.’  The solution was to create ‘a much more intimate and personalized setting for them’—a phrase at odds with the disruption and the discord that often greet the end of a long-established community institution.”

Carol Burris, a former high school principal in New York City and now the director of the Network for Public Education, recently reflected on school closures in the context of the Dyett hunger strike, quoting Jitu Brown: “We’re tired of our children and our communities being demonized and being blamed for being underserved.”  Burris describes the demographics at a number of New York City schools closed in 2011: “A 2011 report by the New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO) recognized that the demographics of the 14 schools slated for closure served a disproportionate number of homeless students, black students, special education students, low income students, and students who were overage for their grade.  Ironically, one third of the schools on the list had replaced another school that had been closed before it—repeating a cycle of disruption for neighborhood kids.”

The problem with the No Child Left Behind Act is that it set out to punish the teachers and schools thought not to be working hard enough, but it has failed to address the concentrated family poverty that is frequently found in the neighborhoods whose schools are persistently said to be “failing.”  Jelani Cobb’s piercing analysis of the demise of New York’s storied Jamaica High School—and the accompanying critique of today’s school reform strategy, pursued with zeal by both the Bush and Obama administrations and the big-city mayors who run their school districts through appointed school boards, is worth reading and re-reading. Cobb understands how top-down management undercuts democracy and how today’s technocratic school policies destroy the very communities that are supposed to be turned around through strategies like closing neighborhood high schools and firing teachers and principals.

Here is Cobb’s analysis:  “Like ‘busing’ and ‘integration,’ the language of today’s reformers often serves as a euphemism for poverty mitigation, the implicit goal that American education has fitfully attempted to achieve since Brown v. Board of Education.  Both busing and school closure recognize the educational obstacles that concentrated poverty creates.  But busing recognized a combination of unjust history and policy as complicit in educational failure.  In the ideology of school closure, though. the lines of responsibility—of blame, really—run inward  It’s not society that has failed, in this perspective.  It’s the schools.  In 1954, Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s arguments about the pernicious effects of racism on black children implicated white society.  Sixty years later, arguments that black students associated studiousness with ‘acting white’ were seen not as evidence of the negative effects of internalized racism but as indicators of pathological self-defeat among African Americans.  The onus shifted, and public policy followed.  The current language of educational reform emphasizes racial ‘achievement gaps’ and ‘underperforming schools’ but also tends to approach education as if history had never happened.  Integration was a flawed strategy, but it recognized the ties between racial history and educational outcomes.”