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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 05/11/2011

Close the school, blame the victims

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This was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal .

By Mark Phillips

Jamaica High School, a beautiful school on a grassy hilltop in Queens, is one of New York City’s Public Schools slated for closing. There have been pleas and protests. But the statistics aren’t good, and the lethal combination of fiscal starvation and test score veneration have convinced the powers that be that the school should be closed.

Why should I care? I have enough problems to focus on in the schools of Marin County, California, where I now live. But as a graduate of Jamaica High (Class of 1955) its closing saddens me. More importantly, as an educator, its closing infuriates me. It is a perfect example of the myopic mentality that is governing much of public education in this country today.

Jamaica High in the 1950s was a school with a student body drawn from South Jamaica, a largely lower and lower middle class African-American community, and from a variety of middle and upper middle class white communities.

I am sure that test scores for the school as a whole were excellent, given that the largest number of students were white middle class. Many of my teachers at Jamaica High were superb and when I entered college I was far better prepared than most of my fellow undergraduates. Most colleges had the school near the top of their admissions lists, and many Jamaica High graduates went to Ivy League schools and the elite small schools of the northeast.

My four years at Jamaica High were a rich experience, academically and socially. It was a good place to be. But while nostalgia and past glories are hardly grounds to save the school, the craziness underlying the decision to close it is.

The creation of other high schools drew middle and upper middle class students away from the school. Additionally, there was a change in neighborhood demographics. The student population at Jamaica High in 2011 is almost totally lower middle and lower class, with a large number of students from immigrant families.

As the classic Coleman Report noted years ago, the best predictor of test scores in schools is the economic and social class of the student population. If the report were to be up-dated today, I’m sure that the challenges associated with second language learners would also be a significant predictor.

So Jamaica High School is essentially being closed, not because of the quality of teaching or the quality of its programs; it is being closed mainly because of its student population. The district’s rationale is low performance but this is a transparent excuse. The district is financially strapped. School closings seem like the easiest way to save money. Test scores provide a convenient pretext.

The district “guide to school closures” appears to have been written by Lewis Carroll. There is institutional insanity evident in the decision making which essentially blames the victims and then cries “Off with their heads!” Economic and social deprivation and the difficult challenges facing immigrant kids become a basis for punishment.

Cloaked in the robe of standardized test scores, this is being increasingly accepted as normal. But the reality is that it’s grossly unfair and destructive to the students, their families, and the teachers. The fact that decision makers believe this is justifiable is a form of institutional psychosis.

If this were a solitary case it would be bad enough. The fact that schools like Jamaica High are being closed all across the country, with the decisions being driven by precisely the same fallacious reasoning, makes the case even more compelling.

Jamaica High School should be saved, not because it once was great, not solely because the community of students and parents are rallying to keep it open, but because there is no justifiable reason for closing it. Its closing would be inexcusable and destructive.

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