A small high school that can’t attract required white suburbanites and two alternative schools that can’t keep traumatized students in class should be shuttered this year, a school board committee suggested.
At a meeting Monday, the Board of Education’s Finance & Operations Committee made an initial recommendation to close Cortlandt V.R. Creed Health & Sports Sciences High School’s current location and consolidate the three alternative schools as part of an effort to close a projected budget deficit.
The conference room at the district’s central offices on Meadow Street was packed — an unusual sight at what’s normally a dry, numbers-heavy meeting for which even school administrators often don’t stay through the end.
Six school board members (everyone but Mayor Toni Harp) showed up to have their say on how to close a $6.58 million dollar deficit this year and an even bigger shortfall of at least $14.35 million next year. The board members talked for two and a half hours. More than 50 parents and staff — many from Creed — listened without a chance to weigh in on the imminent plans to close their school.
The Finance & Operations committee also asked the superintendent to take a look at a number of other expenses. They directed her to renegotiate several leases, including warehouse space on Ferry Street, early childhood education offices on Hamilton Street, and theater space for Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School. They also asked her to review who has permission to use district-owned vehicles.
The committee’s other cost-saving measure in recent months, sending the school-bus contract out to bid rather than taking a locked-in renewal rate as staff had recommended, backfired. Only one company sent in a bid — Students First, the existing transportation provider — at 8 percent higher than their current rate. Because the company is the only bidder, the district is trying to negotiate the rate down.
None of the decisions have been finalized, with board members leaving open the possibility of finding permanent homes for Creed and the alternative schools.
Superintendent Carol Birks is scheduled to provide an update about the budget at next week’s full board meeting. Darnell Goldson, the board’s president, plans to then call a special meeting mid-week to vote on a plan to close and consolidate schools.
“We’ve been talking about this for months. These issues were closures of schools, layoffs of some people, furloughs, whatever it took to get this budget in line. Because at the end of the day, this budget doesn’t help to educate our kids,” Goldson said. “We have to make tough decisions.”
Counting Enrollment Figures
At Monday’s meeting, Birks said she’d narrowed in on four smaller schools that weren’t meeting targets.
She said that Creed, an inter-district magnet high school that had 250 students at the start of the year located in temporary quarters in North Haven, had missed enrollment projections and failed to attract enough racial diversity to justify its state funding.
The school, which is 92.8 percent non-white, is at risk of losing $121,000 next year, said Sherri Davis-Googe, director of school choice enrollment. That’s because, starting this year, inter-district magnet schools formed after 2005 can’t be more than 75 percent African-American or Hispanic — the standard for racial isolation that came out of the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill case, which the Connecticut State Department of Education (SDE) later implemented statewide.
Magnet schools created earlier have until 2020 to catch up. Hyde Leadership Academy, as Creed was once known, would have fit in that category, but it was reconstituted during the move to North Haven in 2013, putting it on deadline.
New Haven’s school administrators have argued that the demographic targets that the state has set are unreasonable for an urban school district surrounded by increasingly diverse suburbs. Never a party to the Sheff lawsuit, which only affected schools in greater Hartford, the district has asked for different criteria to be used, such as measuring socio-economic diversity alongside race.
But the SDE gets to set the regulations. And with a budget crisis that’s slashed magnet school funding, they’ve decided that Creed is out of compliance. They said it could lose funds next year and, without signs of progress, potentially be demagnetized within two years.
Beyond the penalties the district could incur, Birks said that closing down Creed would save $560,000 a year in rent and transportation.
Birks added that the district’s three alternative schools — New Horizons, Riverside Academy and New Light — which together have 211 students who were kicked out of traditional high schools, had such low attendance and graduation rates that they should be reimagined.
The majority of the alternative school kids have been marked chronically absent, meaning they missed 10 percent of class. Last year, the chronic absenteeism rates were 63.3 percent at Riverside, 81.3 percent at New Light, and 90.4 percent at New Horizons.
Each day, only about one-third of the desks are full, Birks said she heard from principals. Goldson said he stopped by one school at 12:30 p.m. last week and found no students there.
“I looked at our data, and I guess I asked the question, ‘Is this the best way to serve that population of students?’” Birks said. “If they’re not coming to school, if we’re not graduating them at a high rate, is this the best way to run a school? We need to look at that, and it’s going to take more than a day or week.”
Birks proposed introducing specialized programs to the bigger high schools and then consolidating other students at a compound that the district rents on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, where Riverside is currently located. Next to adult education classes, the location could allow for more vocational training, perhaps run by Jobs for the Future or Big Picture Learning, plus summer school, she explained.
But that sent up red flags for several board members. Why would they continue to pay $590,000 in rent on the Boulevard, when two district-owned buildings would be vacated? “Closing other facilities and leasing that facility, for me, is problematic,” Goldson said.
Ed Joyner, the one remaining board member who voted against hiring Birks, made a surprise turn when he argued that his colleagues should all take a step back and allow the superintendent to develop her own plan.
“We should give the opportunity to allow the superintendent to use her expertise as an educator for how to do it or not do it,” he said. ‘We are part-time policymakers, and we are really headed down a slippery slope if we give specific orders about how to do her job.”
Next Moves Crucial
While research on the impact of school closures is mixed, several studies suggests that the most important factor in academic outcomes is where students are redirected after their school is shuttered.
In one major study last year, researchers at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University analyzed more than 1,500 school closures in 26 states over a seven-year period.
They found that students who ended up in better schools showed greater academic gains than peers at low-performing schools that stayed open, getting ahead by 10 to 40 days of learning. On the other hand, they found that students who landed in equivalent or worse schools tended to fell behind their peers at low-performing schools that stayed open, losing 20 to 80 days of learning.
The researchers noted that the effects were particularly pronounced for poor black and brown children at shuttered traditional public schools.
“It is crucial to assign affected students to higher-performing schools,” the authors wrote. “However, we cannot pin all our hopes on currently higher-performing schools if there are many students to place. Not even half of the displaced students in our analysis were able to land in better schools.”
Compared to the district’s other high schools, Creed scored near the middle of the pack on state assessments. In total points, it ranked behind almost all every other magnet schools, except High School in the Community, but it still outperformed the district’s two comprehensive high schools, Wilbur Cross and Hillhouse.
Praying For A Good Outcome
The plans have riled Creed’s close-knit community, which one parent speculated has grown even tighter under the constant threat of closure.
Maritza Baez, an outspoken parent whose two children are at Creed, said the board is rushing through a number of important questions that need to be answered before such an important decision.
“Where will these students go to have a comparable academic experience without sacrificing the credits that they have already accumulated? Have you considered the possibility of consolidating Creed with another school in town, to preserve the community that we have built? What criteria were applied to make this decision and will these criteria be applied to other schools? Is Creed being unfairly sacrificed? How do you plan on working with Creed families and staff?” she asked in a letter to the superintendent. “The closing of a school brings many obstacles in the lives of students and families, which must be fully considered before a decision is made.”
Kayla Yulo, a junior at Creed who attended Monday’s meeting with her mother, said afterwards that it was “crazy” she might spend her final year adjusting to another high school. An aspiring pediatric nurse, she said she’d benefited from the school’s offerings, like an emergency medical technician training and laboratory work.
Her mom, Debbie Sampson, said she didn’t want to think about what they would do if Creed closed. “Let’s pray for a good outcome,” she said.
Board member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur said the whole discussion of closures made her stomach turn. “I don’t want you to think that we’re just doing this because we want to cut a fast dollar,” she said, during a tense moment about when to schedule a vote on the closures. “That’s not why I accepted the position on the board: it’s to support all the students and our families.”
Just before discussing school closures, the committee recommended approving 18 contracts and change orders, including a $35.6 million outlay to start construction at Strong School, for which the state will reimburse 79 percent of the costs.