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Parents, Students and Civil Rights Advocates Protest the Mass Closings of Public Schools

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In communities all over the country, resistance is building to the mass closings of neighborhood schools.

Instead of strengthening our neighborhood schools, that have for generations accepted and served a variety of students, and providing resources and reforms like smaller classes that have been proven to work, officials are pursuing a scorched earth policy -- as during the Vietnam war, when the military claimed they were forced to destroy villages in order to save them.

Here in New York City, rallies and protests have attracted thousands, culminating in a tumultuous eight hour meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy, at which parents, students and teachers pointed out how the Department of Education and Chancellor Joel Klein had unfairly targeted their schools, putting forward misleading statistics and incomplete or false data.

They also revealed how the DOE was itself responsible for overcrowding these schools with our neediest children -- many of them poor, immigrant, and needing special education services -- after having closed other large schools nearby. The small "boutique" schools and charter schools that took their place failed to enroll them. The schools now slated for closure also saw huge rises in the number of homeless students over the last few years.

Given all these challenges, many of these schools have done an admirable job. Particularly moving was the testimony of many students, some of them recent graduates, who eloquently pleaded with the administration, saying that after they had been rejected or discarded elsewhere, teachers and administrators at these schools had literally saved their lives.

Here is one story, told by a recent graduate of Paul Robeson High school in Brooklyn, now proposed to be closed:

Stephanie Adams, 22, described being born with fetal alcohol syndrome, getting turned away from school after school in a couple of states, and eventually enrolling at Robeson in the 10th grade. She started out in ninth-grade special education classes but was transferred to general education classes the following year and later graduated 11th in her class, despite being homeless for two years while in high school...."you're not just giving up on institutions, you're giving up on the kids, you're giving up on the teachers....Without Robeson to light the way I don't know where I'd be."

Over the course of eight hours, only a single individual out of nearly three hundred spoke up in favor of the proposed closings, and yet the panel, composed of a supermajority of mayoral appointees, rubberstamped these decisions with not a word of explanation offered to justify their decisions. Only the independent members appointed by the borough presidents of Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens voted in opposition.

In Chicago, battles have been similarly intense and heartbreaking, with community members and parents fiercely defending the survival of their neighborhood schools, now fated for extinction, while officials assured them that they knew better what was best for their children.

As one commentator put it, "While local and national education leaders talk about increasing school choice, parents ... feel the choice they've made is being taken away" -- the choice to send their children to a neighborhood school.

And it's not just parents, students and teachers who oppose these policies; so do researchers. Studies have shown that in Chicago, students sent to schools in other neighborhoods after their schools had closed did no better academically, and in some cases, their displacement appears to have led to the worsening of gang violence, ending in shootings and deaths.

Before the 2006 school year, an average of 10-15 Chicago public school students were fatally shot each year. With massive numbers of school closings, this number soared to 24 deaths in 2006-07, and 34 deaths in 2008-9.

Here in New York City, discharge rates have skyrocketed as schools are phased out -- with up to half of the students in the last two classes at closing schools either forced to transfer to GED programs or just disappearing from the system's records.

Researchers have found that an increase in student mobility is correlated with worse outcomes in academic achievement, nutrition and health, and that nationwide, students who change schools even once are twice as likely to drop out.

Unfortunately, Arne Duncan, head of the US Department of Education, is forcing more districts to adopt these destructive policies, by making this a condition of their eligibility for federal stimulus funds. The federal government has ordained that states have to choose from a small number of "intervention models" -- none of which have been proven to work: either close schools, turn them over to charter school management, or fire half of the staff in the process of "reconstituting" them.

Attempts at actual improvement can be only used in about half of targeted schools -- and unfortunately the specified methods, like teacher performance pay, have never been shown to work.

After studying the these sort of policies for five years, the Center on Education Policy concluded that the federal government "must refrain form forcing schools to implement unproven strategies...Only with more specific knowledge can leaders create policies that help schools improve."

Meanwhile, in New York City alone, literally tens of thousands of students are going to be left without a neighborhood school they have a right to attend -- breaking the ties between their communities and their public schools -- while charter schools are installed in their place.

The expansion of the charter school sector proposed by the Obama administration is particularly risky. According to two recent studies, one from UCLA's Civil Rights Project and another from researchers at the University of Colorado and Eastern Michigan University, show that the proliferation of charter schools nationwide has led to more segregation nationwide.

Yet another analysis reveals how charters in NYC serve far fewer poorer, immigrant and special needs students than reside in the communities in which they sit, leading to a "separate but unequal" school system.

Some day these misconceived policies will be recognized as the educational equivalent of practices pursued by civic authorities the 1950s and 1960s to remake entire neighborhoods in the name of "urban renewal" and "slum clearance."

Those top-down policies led to loss of vibrant neighborhoods characterized by small businesses, a mix of low-rise housing in a complex eco-system, bull-dozed into barren complexes of cement, and caused misery for millions of residents dispersed elsewhere.

Just like the current educational establishment, which has withdrawn their support from neighborhood schools to make their eventual privatization easier to achieve, financial institutions in earlier decades disinvested in these inner-city neighborhoods and "redlined" them so that no loans would be available to improve their conditions- all in the interests of flattening them to the ground.

Indeed, the current policies constitute educational redlining, prescribing top-down solutions, with those in charge ignoring the experience and priorities of community members, in the heedless and arrogant fashion of those who have never themselves sent their own children to urban public schools, and know little and care less about what makes schools work.

Yet communities are fighting back. Here in New York City, the NAACP, along with the teacher's union and local elected officials have filed suit in state court in an attempt to block the city from closing these schools.

Let's hope that the courts deliver justice, before it's too late.