SAN FRANCISCO – Over the last decade, San Francisco's Willie Brown Jr. College Preparatory Academy has seen enrollment plummet and student performance lag. Just 15 percent of students scored proficient in reading on state tests in 2010 and 17 percent in math.
When the school shut for summer recently, it was for good. The district has chosen the most drastic of four options — closure — in a federal program to help students at poorly performing schools. About $45,000 in federal money will pay for a counselor to help families enroll elsewhere for the coming school year. Eventually, a new school will be built at the site.
"It will provide a fresh start," Assistant Superintendent Patricia Gray said. "This is about closing it, starting something new and having something much better."
In the past year, more than 800 schools around the country have been identified as "persistently low achieving" by states and given a chance to receive part of a $3.5 billion federal fund — the largest ever dedicated to turning around the nation's failing schools. Schools that participate must choose one of the four improvement models, which can also include restarting as a charter school, replacing the principals and 50 percent of the staff, and other academic and professional reforms.
Districts have chosen to close schools in just 16 of the cases, an indication of communities' reluctance to shutter neighborhood schools even when faced with high dropout rates and dismal student performance. A district is also generally given less money for closing a school than it would be for the other three options. The amount the closing schools are receiving ranges from $5,000 to $300,000.
Outside the federal program, other cities have announced they are closing schools for reasons ranging from performance to budget shortfalls.
"One of the toughest things for a district to do is close any school," said Gary D. Estes, chief program officer at WestEd, the non-profit education research organization.
The closing schools in the federal program are scattered around the country and mostly located in large urban districts with high populations of minority students. In some cases, enrollment had declined and school buildings were in poor condition. In other cases, reforms like the ones the U.S. Department of Education is proposing had been tried and met with little success.
The Department of Education requires districts to send students to a better school than the one closing, but in at least one case, a majority of students are headed somewhere with only slightly better performance.
In Harrisburg, Penn., some students from the closing Career Technology Academy will be sent to the high-performing SciTech High School, but the vast majority, 95 percent, will be going to John Harris High School.
In its improvement plan, the district outlined academic performance for all three schools. In math, for example, just 6 percent of students were proficient at the closing school, compared to 69.5 percent at SciTech High School and 12.4 percent at John Harris.
"Thus, moving the CTA students to either school is moving them to a higher performing school," the district wrote in its closure proposal.
Asked why more students wouldn't be going to SciTech, district business administrator Jeff Bader said, "They didn't apply to the program or meet the criteria for entrance."
While not every district could provide such numbers, it's not always possible to find a better-performing school for students to attend. In some urban districts, persistently low-performing schools are surrounded by ones that get similarly poor marks.
"If you want the model to be successful, it's going to crucially depend on having a supply of better schools and making an intentional effort to enroll the displaced students," said Marisa de la Torre, an associate director at the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research.
She authored a report on closings by Chicago school officials from a period before the current federal program existed. The study of 44 schools closed from 2001-2006 in Chicago found that most students were reenrolled in schools that were equally low performing, and that there was no effect, positive or negative, on the student's level of academic achievement several years later.
Milwaukee has closed four schools this year, the most for any district under the Department of Education's School Improvement Fund. It's a technique the district has used frequently in recent years. Predating its involvement in the fund, officials closed more than 25 schools in the past five years, board president Michael Bonds said.
Bonds said the schools have been closed because of declining enrollment and poor academic performance. In some cases, the closed schools have been replaced with new ones that parents are now clamoring to have their children attend. In other cases, schools have been merged.
Parents, students and teachers resisted strongly at board meetings, but Bonds said he doesn't regret making the difficult decisions.
"If you allow these schools to remain open and they have a solid record of failure you're doing the kids a harm," Bonds said.
Roxanne Starks, president of the Milwaukee Public Schools PTA, says the closures have been difficult for many parents to accept, partly because they felt uninformed.
"I think MPS has to be a little more responsible in explaining to the community and putting it all out there, rather than just say, 'We are going to close this building,'" she said.
But she believes closure has been the right choice.
Overall, parents tend to rate their own local school very highly. A Gallup poll conducted last year found that 77 percent of public school parents would give their child's school an "A'' or "B," but just 18 percent of all Americans believe the nation's schools perform that well.
The perception of one's own school can easily misalign with reality.
"Schools mean a lot to people, especially when you make these personal connections over time and they played such a historical role in your life," said Padmini Jambulapati, a research associate at the non-profit Education Sector organization, and author of a report analyzing how districts are using School Improvement Grants. "Of course, you're going to see a school much better than what the numbers tell you. There's a huge disconnect."
In recent years, that has started to change. The Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, which legislators are struggling to reform, ushered in an era of testing and strict accountability, making parents more aware of how well their school was performing.
For years, Willie Brown had tried to improve its performance, amid high teacher turnover and persistent discipline problems. About seven years ago, it became part of an initiative that brought a more rigorous curriculum, school uniforms and longer school days.
Though some are upset about the closure, the school had struggled to sell the community on the changes. In a district where students can apply to attend any of its schools, Willie Brown has had trouble attracting families, even from the surrounding neighborhood. When it closed last month, the campus had only 160 students, even though it has space for 500.
Still, the closure of the only middle school in San Francisco's impoverished Bayview neighborhood has upset some parents.
"You just pretty much broke up the whole community," said PTA President Sheronda Perkins, whose twins just finished sixth grade. "It was like a close-knit family."
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