School Closure is a concept that on the surface creates a lot of backlash. When then PEP does their big “vote” every spring, hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of community members turn out in opposition to this policy for a least one night. People claim that the process is “unjust” “unsound” and “undemocratic,” and while I couldn't agree more, I am concerned that people have gotten so caught up in the idea of school closures that they are forgetting the worst parts of the closures themselves. It has become clear to me over the past few weeks, that even if we get a mayor who demands a moratorium on school closings, (which is of course no guarantee) the worst parts of school closings might stick around, just in another form. People believe that a new mayor could mean the end to school closings, and I fear that a new mayor might just be an end to very public school closings, and an end to the opposition against school closings, while school closings are actually still going on.
What happens when a school closes in New York? Generally the school goes through a process called “phase-out.” When a school is phased out, the school does not admit any new students for the following school year, meaning there are no transfers and no freshman class. Each year the school loses a grade until there are no students left (either they all graduate, or they are placed into other schools if they cannot finish in four years). While this happens, since there are fewer students each year, the budgets shrink. When the budgets shrink, programs and teachers are cut. Students no longer are offered a wide variety of electives or honors courses and are left with a very basic education. As for the teachers who lose their positions (due to budget cuts, not any fault of their own) they go into the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) Pool where until they can find a permanent job they work as subs getting assigned to a different school every two weeks. If a teacher is probationary (meaning they are new and have not gotten tenure) they are often fired by the Dept. of Ed. after one year of not finding a permanent job. If a teacher is a 20+ year veteran, no principal wants to hire them since they can get two newbies for the price of one, and if a teacher is in a hard to staff license (such as music, or a career/technical subject) it can be nearly impossible to find a job as well. Basically being an ATR in NYC is like being stuck in Purgatory. So in a nutshell, when schools phase-out, students lose many of the classes they love, and teachers lose their positions.
Now that we understand the effects of the school closure process, let’s look at three schools that were proposed to phase-out this year and that were “spared” due to heavy community opposition. Dewitt Clinton High School, Flushing High School, and Herbert H. Lehman High School were all on the early engagement list to phase out in October, and Lehman stayed on the list until it was announced to be “saved” one day before the closure vote. The students, staff members, and community members, at all three schools rejoiced, and once they found out they would be saved stopped the closure fight. At the PEP vote to close dozens of other schools, I did not meet one person from Flushing or Clinton, and only one person from Lehman (so much for solidarity, but that is a topic for another post). Still, I understand why people seemed very happy to find out that they would not be phased out, but rather undergo a much “less” drastic route. The DOE in all three cases decided to significantly “downsize” all three large High Schools, and still co-locate the schools with new small schools. Lehman, which once had over 4,000 students, will shrink to about 1,000 while sharing the building with five other schools. Clinton, which once had over 5,000 students, will shrink to about 2,000 while sharing their building with, for now, two other schools. Flushing which currently has about 3,000 students will share the building with two more schools and downsize significantly (I could not find an exact number for Flushing online.)
So what happens when schools are downsized? Budgets are cut, programs are cut, and teachers lose their jobs. In fact, at Lehman alone over 40 teachers were told this June that their positions were being cut and that they would not be back in the fall. I am sure the number is similar at Clinton and Flushing. What is worse, this is just year one of the downsizing. Staff members will continue to be cut over the next several years as the population shrinks. Once again, students suffer, teachers suffer, and a school while still technically opened, is a shell of itself. How does this help the kids? How does this help the teachers? How does this help the community? Literally hundreds of teachers have lost their positions at their schools this June, not due to phase-out or closure, but due to downsizing. Thousands of students will not be able to take some of the electives they love, or participate in after school activities, since there will be no more money for those things in the new budgets. In effect, almost all of problems that come from a phase-out come from downsizing. The only thing that doesn’t change is the name.
In a way this is worse than closing the school. Why is it worse? Because other than what has just been published on this blog, not a single media outlet has covered this issue. Once again hundreds of teachers have lost their positions and no one says a thing. Next year we might very well get a more moderate mayor when it comes to education. They may promise to put a halt to school closings and use “less drastic measures” to improve schools, but if children lose their programs and teachers lose their jobs, it is all the same to this blogger. The only difference is the trees will keep falling in the forest, but this time there will be no one there to hear them, other than those directly affected. The DOE, The UFT, and certainly none of the mayoral candidates have not even touched this issue, but at some point it has to be addressed. The media likes to vilify ATRs but no one wants to talk about why we really have them in the first place. Pressure has to be put on our next mayor to end all forms of school closings not just the dramatics ones. Otherwise it will be the same thing next year only with a different name and much less attention.