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Best of 2014: Urban districts struggle to improve academics after school closings

Standing in front of a row of pastors at Cane Creek Baptist Church on Thursday night, backed by the occasional blare of an organ, Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson laid out his hopes and plans for students affected by the district’s plans to close as many as 13 schools in Memphis.
“We can improve student achievement in these schools,” he told a small crowd in the pews, many of them dressed in shirts protesting the planned closure of Westhaven Elementary School. “Let’s put the students together, give them the support that they need, both from a personnel standpoint and from a technology standpoint, and get serious about student achievement. We’ve failed these students for too long.”

But research on school closings in other cities suggests that there may be a hard road ahead. Studies from more than a dozen cities found that students tended to see drops in academic achievement and attendance in the semester before and years after schools were closed, even when districts attempted to maximize academic benefits. Many of those students went to schools that were no better than those they’d left.

Community members have disputed that the closings will improve the schools, claiming that the district could invest more in improving the schools as they currently exist. “There’s been enough upheaval for the students of this community,” said Brenda Brooks, an alumna of Riverview Middle School. “How can you not know that this will negatively affect their learning?”

Hopson said the district plans to prepare for the closings by putting literacy support and new technology into newly-merged schools. “I don’t know if those other districts have thrown the resources we plan to into these schools,” he said when asked about the studies’ findings.

The Shelby County district is facing enormous pressure to improve its lowest-performing schools. Sixty-eight of the district’s 227 schools, and most of those slated to close, are “priority schools,” ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state. Priority schools can be taken over by the state-run Achievement School District and are the target of a number of legislative efforts, including a voucher and parent trigger bill, that could encourage still more students to leave the district’s schools. Four of the 13 schools on the list will be run by the ASD next year.

Some of the numbers are indeed grim: At Vance Middle, fewer than 20 percent of students scored proficient in Math and Language Arts on state standardized tests. At Cypress Elementary, fewer than 10 percent of students scored proficient on those tests. Some of the schools are educating barely more than a quarter of their enrollment from 10 years ago.

Addressing the challenges of all of these schools and communities is a tall order: Though every school slated to close scored an”F” in student achievement on the state’s report card, so did every school slated to receive students from the closed schools.

Consolidating Resources?

Eight district-run schools in Memphis have been closed in the past two years, in an effort to “right-size” the district to match population and enrollment trends. The district says this group of 13 was picked due to a combination of under-enrollment, deteriorating facilities, and low academic achievement.

In addition to being able to consolidate staff, Superintendent Hopson plans to introduce a blended learning pilot and new literacy programs at the receiving schools.

At a community meeting at Alcy Elementary School, district administrator Willie Rhodes said, “One would think, if this school is failing, and this is failing, they’ll be one big failing school. But we will provide some additional support in those schools….when enrollment rises, students will get the benefit of full-time P.E., full-time music, full-time art,” he said.

Living up to those promises can be a challenge for cash-strapped districts, however. In Chicago, many parents and students started school this fall after 50 schools were closed only to find that promised resources were not present, said Pauline Lipman, a researcher at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Research

Memphis is one of a number of cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh, that have closed district-run schools in recent years. But most evidence from other cities does not support closing schools as a means of improving education.

Overall, most districts that have closed large numbers of schools are not faring better academically than they were before: Kansas City, which closed 29 schools in a two-year period, recently lost its accreditation.

Studying closings in 12 districts, the Pew Charitable Trusts found that students’ academic performance often dips toward the end of a school year before a school closes. And a Michigan State University researcher found a negative “spillover effect” for students who attended the receiving schools, though the Vanderbilt team found no such negative impact.

Meanwhile, a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, based on schools that were closed between 2006 and 2009 in Chicago, found that only students who went to a high-performing schools benefitted academically from the closures. But most students did not end up at a high-performing school.

A separate study on school closings in an unnamed mid-sized city found that individual students’ attendance and test scores dropped the first year after that student’s school was closed, even though the district targeted low-performing schools for closure. While attendance improved after the first year, academics didn’t.

As in Chicago, students who were sent from a closed school to a dramatically better-performing school did not see an academic drop due to the closing.

But placing students in higher-performing schools will be tricky in Shelby County, due to the high number of low-performing schools.

“If you’re just closing schools in order to improve academic achievement, it doesn’t seem that that’s a great strategy,” said Ron Zimmer, a professor of education policy at Vanderbilt who studied the mid-sized city. “But if you have to close schools because of financial issues, it may be okay if you can get students into a much better school.”

Researcher Zimmer said determining how to best staff merged schools is another challenge. “A lot of low-performing teachers in low-performing schools ended up being placed in the schools the students transferred to.” But, he said, “not every teacher in a low-performing school is low-performing. It’s a complex issue that needs some critical thinking.”

How the merged schools will be staffed in Shelby County has yet to be determined, said chief of staff Reginald Porter, Jr. Board chair Kevin Woods said he hoped having schools staffed via mutual consent would help.

Community Skepticism

Many parents and community members have told the district they believe their students can get a better education where they are. At Westhaven Elementary, where 40 percent of students scored proficient on state tests, parents say the school is doing well with a high number of special needs students. At Riverview Middle School, parents and teachers say the closure will interrupt a positive trajectory begun by a turnaround effort this year.

Others have presented plans to help improve the schools: More than 60 parents at Alcy Elementary signed a volunteer commitment to help improve literacy at the school.

“These communities have stepped up,” said board member Shante Avant, whose district includes six of the schools slated to close. “Some of the plans are as simple as a commitment from the community to provide adults who would walk kids to and from school every morning, opening their day. For others, it’s as comprehensive as partners who’d provide tutoring and mentoring, the commitment of financial resources from community-based organizations.”

“I don’t think all of these schools should be closed,” Avant said. “And if they are, in order for me to support it, I have to see an academic plan that does support resources being shifted to those merged schools.”

At Cane Creek Baptist Church last Thursday, several pastors encouraged community members to volunteer in schools and to speak up when they saw schools in bad shape or without resources. “We wouldn’t let this church building decay!” said Rev. Dwight Montgomery.

Hopson concluded his remarks at the church by acknowledging the crowd’s concerns. “At the end of this day, in this role where I’m trying to show leadership and use the education system to help people lift students out of poverty, if I have to make a decision to close a school and do something I believe is going to improve student achievement versus keeping it open due to historical concerns – I’m going to err on the side of kids,” he said.

“Pray for me,” he said. “I’m not going to get it right every single time, but I’m going to be guided by what I think is right.”

Hopson will recommend which schools should be closed at the board’s working meeting on Feb. 19. The board is scheduled to vote on Feb. 25.

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