In the Bronx: negative consequences of school closures

Friday Oct. 1 started out like any other day at the Bronx’s DeWitt Clinton High School, but by the day’s end the NYPD had arrived and at least seven students were cited for disorderly conduct. Following a food fight during first period, a number of other fights broke out in the hallways and the violence quickly escalated.

“Students got hit by umbrellas, chairs, and books,” said junior Jackie Clotter. “Females were getting jumped by males.” By the end of the day, she said, rumors were flying that guns and knives had been brought to the building and “the NYPD had to search everyone.”

In 1999 Clinton was named one of the best schools in America by U.S.News & World Report. Today, a mere decade later, students describe overcrowded hallways and gang violence, causing some to argue the school is a casualty of the Bloomberg administration’s overhaul of the public school system.

Since 2002, twenty underperforming high schools have been closed and replaced with over 200 new schools, according to a 2010 report provided by the New York City Department of Education. This illustrates an integral part of the reform process enacted by Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein—replacing large and underperforming high schools, like Clinton, with smaller public and charter schools.

According to a study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, these “small schools of choice” (SSCs), most of which admit students through a lottery system, have been doing quite well. This is a heartening improvement in education for SSC students, but the flip side of this statistic is their “non-SSC counterparts” whose graduation rate remains ten percent lower. There is not nearly enough room in these small schools for all interested students, and critics of this system say those not lucky enough to be admitted not only do not have the same resources but are also being crowded out of their own buildings.

“Going along with the administration’s desire to both make smaller schools and to promote charter schools, the Department of Education has been giving public school space for charter schools to use,” said Rebecca Shore, director of litigation at Advocates for Children, an organization that promotes student rights in New York City.

This practice is known as co-location—when a second (or third, or more) school is opened in the same building as an existing school. Whenever a school is closed, the DOE phases it out by opening a new school or schools in the same building. Shore said the AFC is challenging a number of the DOE’s attempts at co-locating.

“The biggest thing that the DOE needs to do is to consider, especially for students with special needs, what the impact of co-locating or closing will have on students,” Shore said. “That includes,” she added, “what impact more crowding and possible overcrowding of the building will have on students and the psychological impact on students whose schools are closing altogether or being made smaller.”

AFC is not the only organization fighting back against school co-location and closings. The Grassroots Educational Movement (GEM) held a discussion attended by about twenty-five teachers, parents, and concerned citizens at the CUNY Graduate Center Oct. 26 to address both issues.

Gustavo Medina, a retired teacher of Jamaica High School in Queens, which the DOE has been threatening to close since December 2009, described the impact of three new schools opening in the same building.

“They repainted, brought in computers and smart boards. There was a real difference between that wing and the rest of the school,” he said. “Now [Jamaica] has sixty classrooms that have more than 35 students. It’s very overcrowded.”

Richard Barr, whose two daughters attend or graduated from NYC public schools, said he attended the meeting because his alma mater, Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, is on a list of 19 schools slated for closure by the DOE.

“People think they’re on borrowed time,” he said. “It’s demoralizing for students. If you knew the people running the system wanted to shut down your school, how would you feel?”

The overcrowding and feelings of helplessness also reported by students at DeWitt Clinton are due in part to the closure of at least seven high schools in the Bronx over the last decade, which drastically increased enrollment at the remaining large schools.

A 2009 study by the The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs found that Clinton is currently serving 1,000 more students than it was designed for. Since enrollment increased, attendance and graduation rates have decreased by over five percent.

“I honestly think that there are way too many people in that school,” said junior Kristina Wright. “The halls are always overcrowded and people always tend to bump into each other consistently. This leads to the break outs of fights, and sometimes students get out of hand and jump into the fights to make them worse.”

Beyond physical difficulties, however, the security measures necessary to keep a school of Clinton’s size functioning also have a detrimental affect on students’ enthusiasm and attitudes.

“Sometimes these schools feel more like prisons than schools—you go through metal detectors and it’s not always the most welcoming place,” said Syed Ali, a 2009 Clinton graduate.

Though Clinton has not yet been added to the list of 19 schools headed for closure, the school has received Cs on its last three DOE progress reports. The DOE says schools that receive 3 Cs in a row “face consequences including change in school leadership or school closure.”

A recent DOE press release celebrated the opening of 26 new smaller school locations in New York City this September, a sign that Bloomberg and Klein appear to be continuing toward their goal of creating 100,000 new school seats by 2013. A DOE spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Meanwhile, criticism of school closures and co-locations continues to heat up. This past summer New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio reported that the DOE did not sufficiently address how students would be affected by any of the 39 school closures and co-locations he studied.

“We cannot improve our education system if the DOE ends up shortchanging students while it is trying to create better schools,” de Blasio said.