The Political Decision to Close a School
The U.S. educational system is one of the most unequal in the industrialized world, and students routinely receive dramatically different learning opportunities based on their social status.
Rich called me into his office just before Thanksgiving break. Though I was a member in good standing of the school’s leadership team, my natural assumption was that I was in trouble.
As I walked into the office, he closed the door behind us. “Oh,” I said, raising my eyebrows.
“Yeah,” he nodded gravely.
Now I was certain I was being fired.
I didn’t have time to freak out, though, because as soon as we were both seated Rich said, “I wanted to let you know that I talked to the Associate Commissioner today. His office is going to recommend the state Board close the school at their next meeting.”
Tears welled up in my eyes without warning. So it’s finally happening, I thought.
We’d all known this was a possibility, but none of us believed it would actually happen. Schools go through rough patches all the time, we said to ourselves; the state almost never closes them.
This particular school, a fourth- through eighth-grade charter school which was now in its seventh year, had been in trouble for a while. I’d been hired the year before as a consultant to help improve test scores in mathematics. And, on this front, we’d succeeded: scores did improve after the year I’d worked as a part-time coach for the teachers on the math department, and I’d accepted an offer to join the staff full-time as the Dean of Math and Science.
We were encouraged. The kids were learning; the teachers were becoming better at their craft; we had built a strong leadership team. We even went up in the five-point ranking system assigned by the state.
Yet it seemed none of that mattered to the state Education Commissioner.
“What’s going to happen?” I asked.
“I’m going to fight it,” said Rich.
And fight it, he did. Over the next two months, he invited every single member of the state Board of Education to visit us. Our doors were open: Board members observed classes, dined with students, teachers, and parents, and met with the leadership team — sometimes for minutes; sometimes for much longer.
Rich created a thick report for the Board detailing all the progress we’d made since being placed on probation. In the report, each point of the closure recommendation was addressed coherently and with evidence to back up his rebuttal. The leadership team worked together to build a presentation for the Board, which we presented one snowy winter morning. The presentation included a predictive model of the great things that could happen if the school were given just a little more time.
While all this was going on, the school was falling apart.
After Rich finished telling the leadership team about the recommendation for closure, he was tasked with telling a room full of wide-eyed, disbelieving staff members. These men and women had worked their hardest for the school, whether for several months, or several years. They had put in countless hours and jumped through hoops that made their jobs anything but easy, all in the name of helping our kids get an increasingly better education and, ultimately, keeping our doors open.
Finding a job as a teacher is hard, especially in a competitive market like ours. Knowing they might not have a job the following year, many of our teachers began looking. When they found immediate openings, they took them in the name of self-protection.
Before Thanksgiving break was even over, the 8th-grade math teacher quit.
There was no way we were going to successfully recruit a quality candidate with the school’s situation, and so as the person in the building who had taught 8th-grade math for several years, I took over her job.
Soon thereafter, the 7th- and 8th-grade science teacher quit. She had been struggling anyway, and we had questioned her commitment since she’d left another school mid-year to join us. Luckily, we had a building substitute who had great relationships with kids and she agreed to take on the science position full-time, provided she was supported with curriculum.
Problem was, with Rich working on the rebuttal to the closure recommendation and me teaching math, there was not a lot of support to go around — for her or the rest of the teachers in my charge.
Soon, the remaining member of the science department, who taught 4th, 5th, and 6th grade science, left, and leadership was forced to cobble together a coverage plan that involved teachers from other departments taking turns substituting.
Our special education department went through a half-dozen members in just a few months, and providing services for even our neediest students began falling more and more on the shoulders of classroom teachers, who didn’t have the specialized training or the time and energy to provide the kind of support our kids needed.
The Dean of Students, who was responsible for discipline and family communication, was out on parental leave for part of the year, and the promising assistant she’d hired to fill in during her absence systematically dismantled the program she’d worked for years to establish. Student behavior got worse, learning suffered, and consequences were inconsistent at best.
One day, a week or so before the meeting where the Board would be voting on the Commissioner’s recommendation, the Commissioner and Associate Commissioner were scheduled to come meet with the school community after school.
What we did not expect is that they would arrive early and visit classrooms as well.
Having visitors in classrooms in our school wasn’t unusual. Having the state’s Education Commissioner and his minion in classrooms unannounced, however, made a lot of us uneasy. Everyone in the school worried that anything they did or said could be used as ammunition to sweep the rug out from under us.
Which is exactly how I felt when they visited my classroom first. I was teaching a math concept to a small group of kids, and a more complex concept — for which the group wasn’t ready and which I didn’t have time to explain — came up. I glossed over it and then circled back privately later on with the student who had brought it up.
To the Associate Commissioner, the student’s question, and my response to it, made it look like I was confused. In a writeup he provided to the Board after the visit, he used my “mistake” as evidence that our teachers were untrained and ineffective.
For that entire day, it felt as if we were all standing in the doorways, holding up the walls with our sheer strength. After the kids were dismissed, we adults were exhausted. But the day wasn’t over yet. Our biggest classroom filled to the brim with students, parents, and teachers who had come to address the Commissioner directly.
One parent wept as she related the story of her daughter, who had been so traumatized by her previous education experiences that she wouldn’t speak at all in a classroom before coming to our school. Students spoke about how they felt safe and cared for at our school. Teachers who had worked at far worse schools confronted the men and asked the question that was on all our minds: Why us?
The Commissioner and Associate Commissioner swooped in with their condescending tones and hollow promises. “You may enter in the lottery for another charter school, or you can go to your neighborhood school,” they said. “It has nothing to do with the fact that most students here are poor, or black and brown,” they said. “Your school is failing you,” they said.
“Not as badly as our neighborhood schools failed us before,” said our parents. And they were right.
According to the Brookings Institution, “…the U.S. educational system is one of the most unequal in the industrialized world, and students routinely receive dramatically different learning opportunities based on their social status.” The children our school served, due to a long history of de facto social and racial segregation of our city (a story familiar everywhere in the U.S. and not just in our neck of the woods), have historically attended sub-par neighborhood schools with inadequate resources and inconsistent teacher quality.
Some students arrived at our charter school in fourth grade already several grade levels behind in reading and mathematics.
The aim of charter schools is to level the playing field for students whose neighborhood schools are failing them. But in order to do that, we had to lead students to several years’ worth of progress each year that we had them. While it sounded like a losing proposition, we’d believed we were well on our way to closing that gap for our kids.
But now, it appeared that chance was about to be ripped away.
The Board meeting came at the end of January, and the vote was 6 to 4 in favor of closing the school.
Even when viewed objectively the Board’s vote was difficult to comprehend. We had completed all the action items presented by the Board, and then some. We had worked hard and made incremental improvements, and the school — at least, before the November recommendation sent morale into the toilet — was a place where people genuinely wanted to be. It really seemed as though the Commissioner’s office was just looking for a reason to shutter us.
A month after the vote, we understood why.
In our state, there is a limit to the number of “seats” available for charter schools — or in other words, a limit to the number of students who may attend charter schools. We generally sit at full capacity, meaning that opening a new charter school or expanding an existing charter school is impossible because there are no seats available.
In February, two high-profile charter schools were awarded seats to expand their programs — seats that wouldn’t have been free if not for our home having been slated for closure.
There was no other way this could have turned out. No amount of restructuring or rebuttals or rubbing elbows with board members could have changed the outcome here.
We were a chess piece, sacrificed for political reasons, and nothing more.
Someone decided that our kids — kids whose voices already echoed inside the halls of a school building; kids who were already getting a high-quality education in a nurturing (while admittedly imperfect) environment — could be sacrificed for the hypothetical ones that would fill the expansions that didn’t even exist yet.
It was like these 200 children, and the adults who nurtured them, didn’t even matter.
News of the vote spread quickly through staff, and at the end of the day, we broke it to the students.
We comforted our children as they cried bitter tears. We helped our staff write resumes and cover letters, and provided letters of recommendation for their interviews. We joined hands with our parents as they lamented the terrible options that lay before them.
There are many charter schools in our city, but not all of them are good, and many of them are very far away from our families. At the time, entering the lottery had to be done separately for each school. Our parents, some of whom either worked multiple jobs, or didn’t read or write in English, or both, would need to fill out more than a dozen applications — and even then, there was no guarantee their child would get into any charter school at all — let alone one close enough for them to actually attend. We helped in whatever way we could, but in reality, each of us felt just as helpless as the next.
Neighborhood schools had already left many of our students out to dry by the time they’d come to us. Going back, for some, was unthinkable.
In the end, kids were spread in a dozen or more schools across the city. Some got into high-quality schools; others didn’t. Some families keep in touch; most have bigger fish to fry.
All I can hope is that, during the short time we had the privilege of working with these children, we managed to nurture their resilience and perseverance enough that they can be successful despite this rigged deck of an education system that, it seems, will be perpetually stacked against them.