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CLOSING SCHOOLS, OPENING OPPORTUNITIES: Study Finds Closing Low-Performing High Schools Benefits Future Students

Between 2002 and 2008, the New York City Department of Education closed twenty-nine low-performing high schools and opened more than 200 new small schools as part of a series of major school reforms. At the time, the controversial move sparked community protests and even lawsuits. A series of studies from MDRC, a social policy research firm, demonstrates that these small public high schools, which primarily serve disadvantaged students of color, graduate students at higher rates, and produce graduates who are more likely to be ready for college than other New York City high schools. Now a new study from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools finds that these school closures also produced meaningful benefits for middle school students who otherwise would have enrolled in the city’s lowest-performing high schools.

When their local high schools closed, this “post-closure cohort” of incoming ninth graders enrolled in other high schools that had higher average attendance and graduation rates and a higher percentage of graduates earning the Regents diploma than the schools the students likely would have attended, according to the report High School Closures in New York City: Impacts on Students’ Academic Outcomes, Attendance, and Mobility. Furthermore, when they attended these higher-performing high schools, the students in the post-closure cohort likewise demonstrated better academic outcomes than projected for students from the closed schools.

Graduation rates for the post-closure cohort increased by more than 15 percentage points over the rate researchers projected for the closed schools, while the proportion of these students who earned a Regents diploma increased by more than 17 percentage points over the projected rate, according to the report. The high schools designated for closure had an average graduation rate of 39 percent and only 17 percent of graduates earned a Regents diploma. But, while the “study shows that students who likely would have attended the closed schools fared better elsewhere, they still did not fare well,” the report notes. On average, only 56 percent of students from the post-closure cohort graduated from high school within four years, and less than half of graduates earned a Regents diploma. The students from the post-closure cohort were more likely to remain enrolled in the high school where they started ninth grade, though, compared to the projected mobility trend in the closed schools, and were more likely to remain on track toward graduation throughout the course of their high school careers, according to the Research Alliance report.

“Combined with other recent research that has documented the positive effects of New York City’s small high schools, our results offer support for the strategic use of school closures as part of a multi-dimensional high school reform strategy,” says Dr. James Kemple, executive director of the Research Alliance and author of the report, in an article by New York Public Radio about his findings. “I think it’s important to keep thinking about additional strategies that are going to be required to not only get those students to graduate, but be prepared to succeed in college.”

The twenty-nine high schools designated for closure enrolled more than 50,000 students at the time of the closure decisions and 92 percent of those students were African American or Latino, according to the report. Each of the schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent of all high schools citywide during at least one year preceding the closure decision.

The report notes that, depending on the year, New York City had an additional ten to twenty-nine equally low-performing high schools that district officials did not close. The report uses these similarly low-performing high schools as a comparison group to evaluate and isolate the impact of the closure policy on student outcomes.

Although the report documents clear gains for the post-closure cohort of students, it notes that the school closures alone could not eliminate the achievement gaps that existed between these students and their higher-performing peers. Furthermore, disparities in student outcomes based on race and socioeconomic status still exist citywide, despite the improvements created by the reforms, the report says. Approximately 30 percent of students still do not graduate from high school within four years, including more than half of the city’s African American and Latino young men, the report says.

“This highlights deeply entrenched inequalities in the City’s [sic] schools, where poor students of color lag far behind their more privileged peers on [a] wide range of measures,” the report notes. “Whether or not closures are part of the policy framework, there is a need to invest in these vulnerable students and identify structures and supports that maximize their odds of success.”

High School Closures in New York City: Impacts on Students’ Academic Outcomes, Attendance, and Mobility is available at http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/research_alliance/publications/hs_closures_in_nyc.

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