On December 18th, 2017, days before students began winter break, the New York City Department of Education announced it would close or merge fourteen of its Renewal schools, reorganize six others, and move an additional twenty-one schools who have demonstrated a certain level of improvement out of the Renewal School Program. The renewal school designation is the brainchild of the de Blasio administration and a direct answer to the Bloomberg era policy of outright closing failing schools. Of the fourteen schools on the chopping block, nine of them are slated for closure while five schools will be merged. Two of the closing schools are on the Rockaway Peninsula: M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo and P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam. The DOE promised to help students who will be affected by these school closures get into nearby, higher-performing schools. The announcement of the potential closures has created a stir in the Rockaway community, with many parents unsure of what this means for their children’s education. On January 9th, local parent associations are joining forces with Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) for a demonstration in Albany to protest the school closures.
Since the Renewal School Program’s inception, the city has committed $582 million in hopes of supporting and turning around 86 renewal schools. To qualify as a renewal school, a school had to be identified as a “priority” or “focus” school by the State Department of Education. Priority schools ranked in the bottom 5% of lowest performing schools statewide and focus schools ranked in the bottom 10% of programs in select subgroups. Schools also had to demonstrate low academic achievement for three years (2012-2014) and score “proficient” or below on their most recent quality review. Additional schools were chosen for the program at the discretion of NYC Department of Education Chancellor Carmen Fariña. Renewal schools were given additional resources and three years to improve on metrics such as attendance, enrollment, graduation rates and student mastery and achievement. Schools that did not demonstrate sustainable improvement were subject to closure after year three.
Alternatively, schools that achieved 67% of their metric benchmarks during their three-year renewal period became eligible to move out of the Renewal School Program and enter the Rise School Program, where the DOE will continue to monitor the same key metrics while reducing the amount of renewal resources they receive. Four out of the twenty-one new Rise schools are in Queens, including Ocean School Elementary in Far Rockaway, John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Richard S. Grossley Junior High School in Jamaica, and the Pan American International High School in Elmhurst. Despite the notable achievements of these twenty-one schools, their metric improvement is still relative and their standardized test scores remain well below city averages. For many advocates for educational justice, the question remains whether “demonstrated improvement” under the Renewal School Program actually demonstrates that schools increased ability to sustain that improvement on its own. Some question whether it is more likely that the school simply needed more resources in general to be able to achieve measurable improvement at all, and so reducing those resources by moving that school out of the Renewal School Program would only be counterproductive. Others, like administrators at Orchard Collegiate Academy in the Lower East Side, give the Renewal School Program glowing reviews and praised the program’s ability to create sustainable solutions that get to the deeper roots of the problems the school was facing.
Overall, the Renewal School Program has been controversial, with many residents questioning the nearly $600 million price tag for seemingly lackluster results. Of the twenty-eight Renewal high schools, nineteen missed their targeted four or six-year graduation rate and six of those schools saw a decrease in their four-year graduation rate. However, the Department of Education is expected to publish its own official data on the program in the coming months. Additionally, Chancellor Fariña has denied rumors that the Renewal School Program was ending or that the city thought it was ineffective. In response to allegations, she stated, “This is a constant review process. We’re not giving up on it at all.” The news of the closures came days before Chancellor Fariña announced her retirement from the Department of Education.
For Rockaway residents, two potential school closures create a sense of uncertainty and frustration amongst parents. Kevin Morgan, President of the Parent Association, and Chair of the Title I Parent Advisory Council (PAC), is preparing for a fight to keep P.S/M.S 42 open. Though Mr. Morgan’s son will be going on to high school after this year, he is committed to keeping the Rockaway community’s options open. He is one of the organizers planning the January 9th protest in Albany to object against the school closures. Morgan is particularly frustrated by the timing of the DOE’s announcement of the school closures, saying “I think that Carmin Fariña coming 5 days before the Christmas/Holiday Break was thoughtless and Grinch-like.” According to parent leader Queen Makkada, the decision to close P.S. 42 was never about the Renewal School Program or the school’s performance therein, but rather about the acquisition of real estate. She says, “This is not about academic failure. It is about the demand for the $50,000,000 6-story state of the Arts Middle School Addition.” In a neighborhood where gentrification is rapidly accelerating and real estate speculation is at an all time high, Queen’s suspicions are anything but far-fetched.
Often when discussing school closures, the media is flooded with the opinions of policy makers, school administrators and parents, each arguing their point of view. However, the voices of students whose education is in jeopardy are rarely heard. Melissa Kissoon, a college student and NYC public school graduate, gave a speech as a member of the Urban Youth Collaborative where she discussed her firsthand experience with school closures and the impact it had on her education. One practical difficulty of being a student at a failing school meant there was a revolving door of staff, making it difficult for Kissoon to collect quality letters of recommendation and impacting her college application process. She also talked about the psychological impact school closures have on current students. She states, “When school districts close schools, they are sending a message to low-income students of color, which is, ‘We’re going to give up on you, rather than support you.’ It is understandable that the DOE may assume that phasing out a school is actually improving the schools in the long term, but what about the current students?”
Kissoon’s question points to a larger tension underlying many attempts at public education reform. To many advocates, it is clear that our education system is fundamentally broken and requires a deep restructuring that paves the way for future students to achieve better educational outcomes. Despite these noble intentions, the upheaval of closing an existing school and replacing it with one or more new schools creates instability, uncertainty and a lack of steady resources for current students. In the movement to end educational inequity, we must seek solutions that support the success of all students, tomorrow and today. To accomplish this, we must shift our approach from relying on metrics and test scores as the exclusive measures of student success to a more holistic approach that accounts for the needs and experiences of each student. This means increased guidance counselors, college advisors, drug abuse counselors, and mental health resources. This requires a shift from harmful school policing practices and school suspensions to restorative justice and anti-bias initiatives. Although the Renewal School Program encompasses strategies for some of these goals, not all of them are given the investment our students deserve.
In the end, creating the Renewal School Program was an attempt to reduce school closures, but it’s obvious that the city has a long way to go. Considering that several of the schools scheduled to be closed were created during previous mayoral administration’s attempts at school organization, it’s hard to imagine that de Blasio’s latest efforts will magically break the decades-long cycles of struggle in NYC public schools. For concerned Rockaway residents, the January 9th trip to Albany is the first opportunity to combat the mandate. For additional next steps, residents are encouraged to contact Queen Makkada at 347-456-6518.
by Alysha Johnson