Bloomberg Policy of Closing Schools Under Fire from Many Fronts

As the race to Gracie Mansion heats up, a policy that has led to the closing of almost 140 New York City public schools in the past decade has become a hot political issue.

The trend of phasing-out schools due to poor performance has become all too familiar since Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002. The method involves a gradual process where a school no longer admits a new class. The school continues to serve enrolled students until it completes phasing out.

According to the Department of Education, the decision to phase out a school is made when the school is considered “unable to turn around and cannot provide a high-quality education to its students.” The school’s academic reports and quality reviews are taken into consideration to make this decision.

But some students and teachers argue that the success of public schools should be measured differently, and the process should consider what a school actually means to a student.

(Photo by sowhatithaps, via Flickr)

Sheepshead Bay High School students and advocates came out last year to protest threats to close the school, which ended up anyway in the list of schools to begin the phasing out process. (Photo by sowhatithaps, via Flickr)

“You come here and say we are an ‘F’ [school], but you don’t walk the halls we do,” high school junior Christine Johnson said after attending a town hall meeting in December about the possible closing of Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. “I know for a fact Boys and Girls doesn’t leave anyone behind!”

Since that hearing, the Department of Education has given the school a chance to improve and it will remain open until further notice. Others weren’t as fortunate, as 16 schools will begin the phasing out process this year, including: High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Choir Academy of Harlem, Freedom Academy High School, and Sheepshead Bay High School.

“We’ve listened to the community and provided comprehensive support services to these schools based on their needs,” the Deputy Chancellor of schools, Marc Sternberg, said in a press release. “Ultimately, we know we can better serve our students and families with new options and a new start.”

Not everyone agrees with Sternberg. “Closing the school does not heal or change the problems,” said Catrina Williams, Boys and Girls High School Assistant Principal. “It just puts a Band-Aid on them. The students are reshuffled, but are their needs met?”

Williams, head of the high school’s Science Department and Entertainment Academy, said necessary steps need to be taken to develop community schools in such underserved neighborhoods as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville in Brooklyn.

“I would like to see the next mayor create access points to the Common Core Learning Standards for students who receive Instructional Support Services and ELL (English-Language Learner) students, and more funding put into art and music programs,” Williams said.

At a debate on education in January, and many other forums since then, the Democratic mayoral candidates have expressed concern over the policy.

“It was just too strange that the chancellor and the mayor often would just get up and announce these school closures as if they had achieved something for the educational system,” City Comptroller John Liu said during a forum at Baruch College sponsored by the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.

His main rivals on the Democratic ticket agreed. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio defined school closures under the Bloomberg administration as “a bankrupt policy,” with no input from parents.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said: “Instead of treating school closing like a goal in and of itself, we should see it as an ultimate last resort when all else has failed.”

During his first mayoral debate after recently joining the race for mayor, Weiner referred to public schools closing as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” The closures come, “because we abandon [the schools] in the first place,” he said at a debate last month hosted by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools.

Former City Comptroller Bill Thompson said during a Q&A session at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism earlier this month, “We need to end things like closing schools. There’s ways to turn schools around.”

As they await the next mayor, students, staff and communities look forward to a different solution to the problem, one that does not involve the closing of schools in communities that need the institutions the most.

“Many schools lack resources and other schools are given ‘certain types’ of kids but don’t supply the support to enable the school to service the students properly,” said Williams. “There needs to be a realistic look at what schools need so that they can be successful.”

This article was written as part of the Covering NYC: Political Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation.