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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why we shouldn't close failing schools: Vulnerable young men of color stand to lose

Pedro Noguera | New York Daily News Opinion Guest Contributor
March 31, 2011

For the last five years, a coalition of corporations, philanthropies and educators such as myself, called Winning Strategies/Black Male Donor Collaborative, has been working to call attention to the enormous challenges facing black and Latino men in New York City.

Our concern is that too little has been done by city leaders to reverse the disastrous trends facing this segment of the population. Mayor Bloomberg used his last State of the City speech to announce that he would launch an initiative to address the needs of black and Latino males, but so far there has been scant evidence of such a push from either him or his new schools chancellor, Cathie Black.

New York cannot afford to wait any longer. A 2010 report by the Community Service Society found that only one out of four young black men in the city is employed, and that this group had been the hardest hit of all demographics by the recession. "Black men ages 16-24 without a high school diploma or equivalent were almost completely pushed out of the labor market during the recession," the study noted. A 2009 report by the Fiscal Policy Institute found that in the poorest neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the Bronx, the unemployment rate may be as high as 46%.

It should surprise no one that the neighborhoods with the highest unemployment also have schools with the poorest performance indicators. The two problems feed into each other. Many of these schools have been identified for closure by the Education Department: A total of 13 schools will be phased out by June 2011, with about 20 more to close in the following school year.

Something must be done about failing schools, but is closing them the best strategy? A 2009 study conducted by the University of Chicago found that when schools in that city were closed, "Most students who transferred out of closing schools reenrolled in schools that were academically weak."

A similar study conducted in the same year by the Center for New York City Affairs found that small high schools replacing bigger ones - the infamous "dropout factories" of urban lore - "are no panacea," with high teacher turnover and spotty records on attendance and graduation.

As my NYU colleague Diane Ravitch has written, "It is easy to close schools, disperse the students and claim victory. But no school is improved and no student is helped by closing schools." There is evidence that school choice policies have made it possible for many schools to avoid serving the most challenging students.

of the schools targeted for closure is the Urban Assembly Academy for History and Citizenship for Young Men in the South Bronx. The Education Department cited its graduation rate (which has hovered above or near 50%) as the primary reason for this decision. Yes, schools should be held to a higher standard, but when the rate for black and Latino males citywide is lower than the academy's, it's hard to see the wisdom of this strategy.

Urban Assembly was created for the explicit purpose of educating young men of color. Before shutting the school down, the Education Department must examine why it failed and devise new ways to support its students.

Last year, Ronald Mincy of Columbia University and I released a study titled "Understanding the Education Trajectories of Young Black Men in New York City: Elementary and Middle-School Years." What we found was disturbing: Less than 30% of black and Latino males are graduating with Regents diplomas from city high schools.

Instead of shuffling underperforming students from one failing school to another, we must buckle down and apply interventions - high-quality preschool, extended class time, accelerated summer school, access to mentors and social workers, etc. - that have worked in other districts.

This is not merely a black or Latino problem. Our city cannot afford to bear the economic and social costs of continued failure. Every dollar we spend to incarcerate a young person is a dollar we don't have available for education.

The current situation also places a tremendous social burden on families and communities that have grown weary from seeing countless young men of promise become trapped in a cycle of failure.

We stand ready to assist Chancellor Black and Mayor Bloomberg. But are they ready to lead? There is a broad array of individuals and
organizations ready to take concrete actions on strategies that have proven effective elsewhere. We need our policymakers to work with us.

We can and must do better at serving the needs of this population than we have done in the past. It's time for all New Yorkers to insist that we do.

Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University.

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