In a shift, de Blasio moves to close three struggling schools
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is planning to close three struggling schools at the end of this academic year, a surprise move after the mayor initially announced last year that low-performing schools would only be closed after three years of attempted interventions.
The three closures - at Peace Academy Middle School, School for the Urban Environment and Foundations Academy High School, all in Brooklyn - will affect 217 students and 24 teachers. They will be the first district school closures of de Blasio’s tenure.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education announced the intended closures on Monday, just over a year after de Blasio announced his Renewal program to improve low-performing schools. In November of last year, de Blasio sharply criticized former mayor Michael Bloomberg for closing schools “casually.”
“Schools ... were abruptly shut down with too much reliance on test scores in making the decision and not enough effort to save them,” de Blasio said during his Renewal school unveiling last year. “After years of neglect, a school the community was deeply attached to was declared a failure, when in fact it was city government that had failed."
De Blasio pledged to close schools only as a “last resort,” after three years of interventions, though in February of this year he first indicated that they could be closed sooner than 2017.
Over the last several weeks, after sustained pressure from pro-charter school education reform groups over what they said was de Blasio's unwillingness to provide urgent help to hundreds of students in low-performing schools, the mayor and city schools chancellor Carmen Fariña began emphasizing the possibility of early closure.
In an interview on NY1 last week, de Blasio took a particularly strong stance, saying, “Lord knows, if we think a school is not going to be fixed, we will not hesitate to shut it.”
The Renewal program has faced heightened scrutiny recently, after reports found that the DOE gave the 94 struggling schools three years to achieve goals that other schools must complete in one. And a recent NYU report found that Bloomberg’s school closure program helped many students, who ended up attending replacement institutions.
One of the three schools slated for closure, School for the Urban Environment, is not a Renewal school, though it is extremely under-enrolled and has low test scores.
All three schools are significantly under-enrolled. Peace Academy was the lowest-enrolled middle school in the city last year; School for the Urban Environment was the second-lowest.
The two middle schools posted dismal results on standardized tests; no students at School for Urban Environment passed the ELA exam last year. The high school, Foundations Academy, had only a 32 percent four-year graduation rate last year.
All three will be closed as of this spring, pending likely approval by the Panel for Educational Policy this February.
While the closures represent an unexpected move for the administration, the schools themselves reflect the broader educational philosophy of the administration. All three schools are small schools created under Bloomberg’s initiative to replace large, failing high schools with smaller ones.
While research has shown that the small high schools schools provided benefits for students, Fariña has gone in the opposite direction, merging small schools together. The chancellor has argued that mergers allow schools to share resources.
Notwithstanding his evolving view on early closings, de Blasio took a swipe at Bloomberg’s small schools initiative just last week, saying the schools that replaced large high schools “were not necessarily better.”
Fariña’s statement on the closures also reflected that view.
“Closing a school is always a difficult decision,” she said Monday. “I am committed to holding all our schools accountable to meeting the needs of our students. Schools with such a low enrollment cannot provide the robust education our students deserve.”
The three closing schools are smaller than many of the small high schools that Bloomberg created.
While the closure announcement would seem to be something of a concession to the mayor's critics among the education reformers, and a jab to the city's teachers' and principals' unions, their responses on Monday indicated the opposite.
“Mayor de Blasio selected just three small schools out of hundreds of failing schools, and is not opening any new schools," said Jenny Sedlis, the director of StudentsFirstNY. "While de Blasio may want to pretend he's taking a play out of a reform handbook, his approach is haphazard, evidence-rejecting and too small in scope."
Jeremiah Kittredge, the CEO of charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools, released a similarly disparaging statement.
"This decision impacts less than .3% of all families trapped in failing schools, and leaves tens of thousands trapped in schools that are just as dysfunctional as these three," he said Monday.
United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said he "understood" the reason for the closures, citing low enrollment. He said he and Fariña discussed the closures over the weekend, and contrasted the de Blasio administration's approach to school closures to Bloomberg's.
"We've been closing schools in New York City for thirty years," Mulgrew said. "We only had a problem when the mayor of New York City made a bet that he could close 200 schools," referring to Bloomberg. Mulgrew remains a close ally of de Blasio, and has generally declined to criticize the administration.
Ernie Logan, president of the city's Council of School Supervisors and Administrators for principals, also said he believed the schools should be closed. "Unfortunately, each of the schools...present unique challenges which make closure the best option for Fariña to exercise at this time."
Parents at the three schools were notified of the closure decisions on Monday.
MaryEllen Elia, the state’s education commissioner, praised the city’s decision to close the three schools in a statement on Monday.
“I’ve visited Renewal Schools with the Chancellor, and judging from the schools I’ve walked and the progress I’ve seen, I expect many of these schools to turn around,” Elia said. “The Chancellor’s decision to close these schools wasn’t easy, but it was right.”
Elia and Fariña have become allies over the last several months, though Elia has pledged to be tough on the city’s struggling schools. Seven of the city’s lowest-performing schools face takeover by a third-party organization at the end of this academic year if they do not show substantive improvement.