The Lens
6:00 am
Wed January 8, 2014

When Failing Schools Close, Results Are Mixed

Lens reporter Jessica Williams looks into the long-term results of school closings.

Last year, the Recovery School District closed four elementary schools in New Orleans because of poor performance, affecting about one thousand students, who had to find another school this year.

Now, state officials have released grades for many of the new schools those students are enrolled in. The question is whether those students who were forced to change schools ended up at better schools than the ones they left.

Eight year old Seth Wattigney is in the third grade this year at Paul Habans Charter School. His last school, Murray Henderson Elementary, was closed by state officials in May, because of poor academic performance.  Seth ended up at Habans, nearby.

Henderson was an F school, but Habans would be a B school, if it had been graded under the state’s grading system. Seth’s grandfather, William Wattigney, loves Habans because they work well with Seth, who has autism.

"He’s learning so much," Wattigney says." I can’t believe it. The things that he’s coming home with, about the science and math."

Henderson families mostly wound up at better performing schools, but other families were not so lucky. Veronica Washington’s four grandchildren left James Weldon Johnson Elementary, an F school, and wound up at Benjamin Banneker — another F school. On top of that, Banneker is closing at the end of the year. RSD says they told parents that the school was going to close. But Washington says she didn’t know.

"I feel that, if a school is closing and they having a failing grade, why not let the parents know, ahead of time that look, you’re applying to this school, but this school has a F, and it will be closing soon. And give them the opportunity to get another school ahead of time," Washington says.

Tracking students and school grades is complicated: a new state formula gives some schools higher grades than they would have gotten last year. And schools under new management, like Schaumburg in Eastern New Orleans, aren’t rated by the state at all in their first few years.

So, does closing a failing school mean every kid will get into a better one? Data provided by RSD shows that many do not.

Many students who left two closed schools, Henderson and Mays, went to better schools. Most students who left Johnson and Abramson went to other low performing schools. That’s based on those families who participated in the common application process.

One of the reasons many kids aren’t at better schools: Some parents didn't choose schools, so RSD assigned kids to schools that in some cases weren't much better. And there still aren't enough seats in high-performing schools to take all the students leaving failing ones.

But, RSD’s enrollment director Gabriela Fighetti says closing failing schools generally gives families better options.

"The decision to close a school is really hard," Fighetti says. "It is one that we take really seriously here at the Recovery School District, and we think about a lot before we make that choice. But we make that choice, with full confidence that the options available to these families, are better options than what they have."

What’s more, this year’s school performance scores show that most of the city’s schools are doing better now than in years past. It’s something RSD is proud of.

"Of course we haven’t hit the mark, we’re not done, there’s still more to improve," Fighetti says. "But if you just think about what that was 10 years ago to what that is now, it is a huge change."

In addition to Banneker, the RSD will close two other low performing schools this summer: A.P. Tureaud and Walter Cohen.

Read more about this story over at The Lens.

Correction:

The story above has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Paul Habans Elementary School is referred to in this story as a "B school, under the state's grading system." In fact, Paul Habans was given a score of 88.2 in 2013, instead of a letter grade, as is the state's rule for schools in their first year of new management. A score of 88.2 would have placed the school in the 'B' range, had it been graded.

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