Evette Chico wasn't outraged to learn that her child's school got a failing grade two years in a row. She was outraged to learn that the city is closing it.
New York City officials are concerned that William H. Maxwell High School, a vocational school in Brooklyn, lacks "academic rigor." Chico is concerned about her 17-year-old daughter, Catherine, being able to finish the cosmetology training she started at Maxwell High. The city provided a list of other vocational schools, but Chico notes that all the other cosmetology programs are in Queens, the Bronx, or Staten Island, while Maxwell High School is just a few blocks away.
Maxwell High School is slowly improving, Chico says. One teacher discovered that Catherine was an auditory learner who tested better when someone read the problems aloud to her, so he arranged to have someone sit with her in a corner and read the problems during test time. Another teacher told Chico where Catherine needed extra help and then helped her find it. City reports corroborate Chico's picture of a school that is making improvements-one where kids feel safe and teachers are trying to improve the academics. But Maxwell's academics lag behind state standards and only 40 percent of its students graduate in four years.
Cities can close a failing school, convert it to a charter school, or transform it from within. A complete transformation is rare and a charter school conversion demands drastic change, leading some experts to say we should scrap failing schools and start over. But once a failing school shutters its windows, parents like Chico need alternatives.
Even after decades of tweaking, some failing schools still fail. The 2009 Brown Center Report on American Education compared the 1989 and 2009 test scores of 1,000 California schools and found that after 20 years of tinkering with every school reform ever devised, the test scores barely budged. Nearly two-thirds of the low-performing schools in 1989 were still low-performing in 2009. Only 1.4 percent of the schools moved from the bottom to the top, proving that major improvement is possible but very rare.
Bill Evers, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, compared a failing school to a failing corporation: It usually sells or goes bankrupt and rarely transforms itself without a change in ownership and leadership. Both a school and a corporation have a culture-perhaps of low expectations or mediocre effort-that is hard to change without starting afresh.
Even charter school conversions take drastic change. The same report found that converting a failing school to a charter school did not have a large impact on test scores; in fact, a 2008 cohort of charter school conversions actually saw declining test scores. Evers says changing a public school to a charter school doesn't automatically change a school's culture: "If you just convert them without a radical shakeup, then they're going to be mostly the same." You have to start almost from scratch, changing the mission, the leadership, the staff, and the culture.
Green Dot Schools, a Los Angeles charter school corporation, tried a charter school conversion with Locke High School and found that it took extreme measures.
Green Dot Schools CEO Marco Petruzzi says of the South Los Angeles high school, "Everything was wrong with the school." Security was low. Graffiti tarnished the campus. "Kids were just looking behind their shoulders. They just didn't feel safe. There was a very toxic atmosphere," he says. "Even when you had some heroes among the teaching staff who really tried to make a difference, it really wasn't enough to change the entire culture at Locke." Parents looked at the statistics-only 5 percent of incoming freshmen went on to college-and signed a petition to change the school to a charter school and give control to Green Dot Schools.
Green Dot fired three-quarters of the teachers and hired new leadership. It split the school up into five small schools, each with its own entrance and administration and with 25 adults focused on developing relationships with the 550 students in each school. It cleaned up the graffiti and retiled the bathroom and planted a quad with new trees so that students would feel safe and get a sense of ownership. Security guards patrolled and an adult supervised every space. Green Dot instituted a program to change the school culture to one of respect, enforcing behavioral standards for both students and teachers.
Green Dot listened when parents and students said they wanted to keep one athletic team and one mascot even though the school was dividing. When a rumor started that Green Dot only served kids who were "better" than Locke High School students, Green Dot took seniors to its other schools so they could see that all of Green Dot's students looked like them.
In two years, the retention rate at Locke High School has gone from 84 percent to 93 percent. Student test scores have improved by 74 percent in English. Green Dot Schools has created successful charter schools from scratch, but turning a school around was "immensely harder," said Petruzzi: "We got it mostly right. I wouldn't say we were flawless. . . . It's definitely going well."
If the city closes a failing school, one thing is clear: There should be a better alternative nearby. The Consortium on Chicago School Research found that closing a school only improves a student's academic performance if he goes to a better school afterward-and only 6 percent of the Chicago students shoved out of failing schools ended up in top schools.
When New York City's Department of Education announced that it was closing 19 low-performing schools, it faced community meetings that lasted until 2 a.m. and a lawsuit alleging that the city failed to get "meaningful community involvement." The city sent out impact reports for the closing schools, but parents complained that they looked like templates. "They don't get the concept that even though it's their building, their school-without us and our kids they don't have a school," Chico said.
Even though she defends Maxwell High School, Chico gives the school a "C"-just one letter grade above the city's grade and partly for improvement over the last two years. And with improvements and heroic teachers, the school's academics are weak, and it will take more than two years and a change in principals. Hopefully the alternative is not an hour-long train ride away.