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Thompson: School Closings in Chicago, Newark & Oklahoma City

Like so many reformers in Newark and elsewhere, Cory Booker was a true believer in "disruptive innovation" to produce "transformative" change. Dale Russakoff, in The Prize, explains that Newark reformers, funded by Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million grant, were slow in developing a plan for creating a "hybrid" district through school closures and expanding the charter sector.  Booker had said that the biggest challenge would be "breaking this iceberg of immovable, decades-long failing schools." After this is done, "They'll melt into many different school models. They're going to flower, just like the cherry blossoms in Branch Park."

Booker didn't seem to have read about the [then] decade-long history of Chicago school closures started by Arne Duncan. And, he seemed to have forgotten about the murder of Derrion Albert as he walked home from his turnaround school, Fenger H.S. Or, perhaps he believed that Newark gang-bangers would be so inspired by One Newark that they would transform gang turf into cherry orchards for all. 

In 1998, when I had my first experience with a school closure and reopening, Oklahoma City had some schools as violent and low-performing as those of Newark and Chicago. My John Marshall wasn't one of them. It was somewhere between 2/3rds and 3/4ths low-income, very similar to the neighboring Northeast H.S., which was turned into a magnet school. Marshall had the best faculty that I had ever seen, and Northeast was known for producing state and local teachers of the year and teacher-leaders. After the crack and gang violence peaked in the early 1990s, and after the "jobless recovery" finally started to put some patrons back to work, both schools had been seeing incremental gains.

Then came the 1998-1999 "Year from Hell," as our long-suffering principal dubbed it. Combining students from the two neighborhoods who could not be admitted to selective schools was not the sole cause of our collapse. Neither am I aware of a connection between the change in school boundaries and the deaths that year of five Marshall students and recent alumni. But, the meltdown of our school showed the risks involved with tampering with the delicate ecosystems of schooling.  It was a major step in our blood-drenched path to becoming the lowest-performing secondary school in the state.

Even before our first funeral, during my daily, dazed walk to the gym for lunchtime basketball with the students, I kept asking if this was a nightmare, and whether what I was experiencing was real.

I taught 9th grade and we picked up an additional 100 freshmen. The younger students were always much, much harder to teach, lead, and coax into becoming responsible students, but they were particularly disoriented by the breakdown of traditional gang boundaries prompted by their transfer. Of course, this doesn't occur in every school closure, but the unpredicted and disproportionate numbers of freshmen created classes of up to 43 students. Because there were so many new faces, the always difficult challenge of tracking down "hall-walkers," who routinely skipped class, was made much tougher.

Sadly, as in previous and subsequent years, the students who came to school but who did not go to class did not really want to be given complete freedom to skip school. They wanted to be caught, to have a caring adult learn their names, and to start the belated process of going to class (most of the time.)  Frequently, my students would laugh at a kid who would peek in the door and then run off. I'd be told that that was "so and so," and he was supposed to be in our room. Even if I didn't catch a good enough look to attach a face to the name, I could then make another call home, and again notify a counselor.

But, we all had far too many brushfires to put out. In our overwhelmed school, most of those kids dropped out before their teachers had a chance to learn who they were. Four years later, our graduating class would barely be more than a third of the size of the incoming freshman class. 

I had the good fortune of a last-hour planning period. I played football with the guys and softball with the female athletes. But, less than a hundred students were authorized to be out in the gym and in the ball fields. By late winter, several hundred students continually skipped class and meandered across the property. Sometimes, out of morbid curiosity, I went inside, walked the entire building, and searched in vain for a class that was under control, working, and learning.

Several times on my tours, hundreds of the students who remained inside class would spill out into the halls. We subsequently lost a hundred students a year, transforming our inner ring suburban school into a hardcore dysfunctional one.

Our faculty was no different than the teachers who were helping to improve student outcomes the year before, and it was essentially the same as in 2002 when Marshall's outcomes improved more than any other high school in the district. Marshall then started to produce the same type of incremental gains as we produced before the Year from Hell. In 2006, another school closure created conditions that were even worse than 1999. This time, the process was "data-driven" and our new school of Centennial was funded as if it was a run-of-the-mill, 90% low-income school, not a 100% low-income school serving extreme concentrations of traumatized kids from a neighborhood lacking social capital. 

I'll leave the story of that tragedy to another time. Instead, I will ask why reformers in Newark and Chicago believed they had a better handle on the closure process than we did in Oklahoma City. Why in the world did they believe they could avoid creating schools that crossed "the tipping point," and which would have required far more per student funding than similar schools that may be "low-income" but that are very different from the highest-poverty neighborhood schools?  Why would they believe their One Newark would let cherry blossoms bloom without inflicting severe harm on those kids left behind in more segregated schools?- JT (@drjohnthompson)        




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