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Differentiated School Closure Decision-Making

Like 20 other schools across the city, Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Corporate Academy recently received word that Chancellor Joel Klein has recommended that the school be closed. In some ways, MCA outshines other schools. For example, in June 2009 MCA outperformed 74% of city schools in weighted US History Regents performance and more than 62% of city schools in weighted Integrated Algebra Regents performance. Of course, like all of the schools on Chancellor Klein’s shutdown list, MCA has real deficiencies and areas where improvement is needed. But the chancellor’s recommendation does not reflect the learning community that has been created here, and his selective use of statistics to justify his decision is upsetting.

The progress reports do show how MCA compares to other schools that share some of its characteristics, but that comparison doesn’t reflect the nuances behind MCA students’ specific needs and accomplishments. And when DOE officials visited MCA on Jan. 14 to explain the decision to close the school, they compared MCA to schools citywide. Considering the emphasis on differentiation of instruction in the classroom to meet the needs of students, it seems reasonable to ask the same of our chancellor: Differentiate your evaluation of each school to reflect the needs of that particular school. The decision to use failures to reach citywide averages as the basis to close schools is unreasonable and unfair because it fails to account for the unique needs of each school’s population.

Klein should recognize that a school like MCA (where 80% of students who entered in 2006 scored 1 or 2 on their 8th grade statewide ELA exams) is going to have a harder time getting its students to pass the English Regents exam than a school that receives a more skilled 9th grade class. The performance of an incoming 9th grade class has great influence on the expected results, especially when the numbers are not outliers, but trends. It is unreasonable to expect that students who earned mostly 1s and 2s on their 8th grade exams will graduate at the same rate as students who earned mostly 3s and 4s. Similarly, while MCA’s attendance rate is too low, it’s not fair to assume the problem lies with MCA; forty percent of this year’s 9th graders, for example, also missed more than one in 10 school days in middle school.

An educator who differentiates well might also point out that there are a wide variety of factors that can keep students from graduating in four years. At MCA those factors include (but aren’t limited to) residential transience, homelessness, health issues, incarceration, and death. Each of these factors limits what teachers and administrators can do to help a student graduate on time. What the chancellor is choosing to do by limiting “graduation rate” to the 4-year number is discouraging MCA from differentiating its program to meet its students’ needs. While the 4-year graduation rate at MCA (2009: 48.1%) is lower than the staff considers acceptable, the most recent 5-year graduation rate is 62% and most recent 6-year graduation rate is over 70%, well above the citywide average.

The use of citywide statistics is particularly unfair to small schools like MCA. Our student body (total enrollment averaging 390-420 pupils in past 5 years) means that very small events can have catastrophic impacts on our school’s performance. As an example, MCA had three students of the 2005 cohort who should have graduated in June of 2009, but they missed one of the morning Regents exams they needed to graduate in June – two due to illness, one due to oversleeping. When those students took the exams in August and passed, they received their diplomas, but their achievement did not count towards the 4-year graduation rate. If those three students had passed the exam in June, our 4-year graduation rate would have been nearly 6 percentage points higher. A similar jump in statistical performance at a larger school would require an event of much greater consequence. It is unjust to penalize MCA for being more dramatically affected by small changes.

The chancellor’s failure to account for the specific needs of individual schools when determining a school’s future is unreasonable. Arbitrary selection of statistical categories and skillful manipulation of data could be used to show the “failure” of even the strongest schools in the city. Further, the blanket comparison of unique schools to a citywide standard with no account for needs of the individual school is unfair. MCA clearly has steps to take to better serve its students. But it is only right that the chancellor do a better job of considering the individual needs of MCA’s educational community when evaluating their performance.

Instead of looking at a school and seeing the visible successes, the chancellor is looking at a school and seeing failure. And while I imagine that none on the closure list is without room for improvement, it is unreasonable to look at a school like MCA and deny its successes.

Alex Jones is a U.S. History teacher and policy debate coach at the Metropolitan Corporate Academy, a small high school in Brooklyn.

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