Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Closing New York City schools is an education plan that fails our kids

Wednesday, February 10th 2010, 4:00 AM

Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have decided it is a good idea to shut 19 troubled schools in New York City's low-income neighborhoods. The NAACP is suing to stop the closings.

The reason for the lawsuit is simple: Education is a civil rights imperative of our century. It is a ladder out of poverty for many working-class families. It was the civil rights struggle of the day when the NAACP brought Brown vs. Board of Education to end school segregation, and it has been one of the organization's cornerstone battles for 100 years.

We are suing because, in the New York City case, democracy was overlooked and citizens' voices - the concerns of those most affected - were left out.

In our view, the city blatantly disregarded the state-mandated analysis of how the closings would affect the more than 13,000 students who attend the schools, particularly special education and other special needs students, and how the closings would impact the often overcrowded schools they are sent to.

The Education Department disrespects the students and their parents with poorly planned and executed school closures. The department didn't even announce where the students would end up. Instead, they kept parents in the dark, worsening a situation in which trust was already a scarce commodity. If the students were from affluent communities, it's doubtful the administration would run roughshod over that democratic process - and doubtful the schools would even be closed.

The city needs to be more responsive to neighborhoods like Parkchester in the Bronx, where parents and teachers had to fight City Hall for more than six years to get children moved out of mold-infested trailers that were causing many students to become ill. Or the Queens neighborhood where the high school slated for closure is struggling to serve the needs of children who don't yet know English, have disabilities or are homeless. Or for schools in low-income communities citywide, where despite recently winning a 16-year-old lawsuit for fiscal equity and smaller class sizes, the necessary resources have still not been invested and students - often with intensive educational needs - are still being educated in class sizes of 35 or more.

Some New York schools may indeed need to close, but several of the schools slated for closure have foundations on which we can build better learning opportunities. If we invested in reducing class sizes, developed supports for improving teaching quality, implemented the court-mandated fiscal equity and emphasized college readiness, many of these schools could be turned around.

Instead, many of the schools are bursting with students who have intensive needs - students who are being relocated from schools that had been closed earlier and will be transferred yet again. Some of these schools had an over concentration of homeless children, who can find themselves moving from shelter to shelter and must frequently change schools.

No plan has been announced to indicate which schools, if any, have the capacity to serve the students being displaced. Instead, the city risks a vicious cycle of shuttling kids from one poor-performing school to another, disrupting their sense of stability and further threatening their success. The department's plan seems to be to keep rearranging these kids like deck chairs until the new schools sink, unprepared for their weight, or students grow frustrated and drop out altogether.

Some of the schools surpassed the list of criteria that the Education Department set for closing a school, so why do they face the chopping block? The majority of schools targeted for closure earned passing marks on their quality reviews, and one-third were in good standing with the state. These are legitimate concerns and should have been discussed in a thoughtful, meaningful way with the goal of seeking solutions.

Our lawsuit is about upholding democracy and inclusion, the ethos that drives all of our work. It's the underlying principle that led to Brown vs. Board of Education. The parents and students of New York City deserve no less. They should be given the right to raise their voices about decisions affecting one of the most fundamental and cherished aspects for any family - a quality education in a good school.

Jealous is president and CEO of the NAACP. Dukes is president of the New York State Conference of the NAACP.

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