Read the Kinder Institute's full report on school closures in HISD.
By the time Ryan Middle School in the Houston Independent School District was at risk of being closed down by the district, enrollment had dropped from more than 800 students to roughly 300 in a decade, according to numbers from the Texas Education Agency. The historic school that had long anchored the Third Ward community around it was still deemed academically acceptable by the state in 2012, but inside the brick walls, it was a different story, according to Arva Howard.
Staff turnover was high, teachers were often absent and the building that had housed one of the first schools for black children in the city now languished, according to Howard, a longtime member of the school’s shared decision-making committee that acts as an advisory group to the principal. Howard's son attended Ryan not long before the district first proposed closing it in 2012.
A painful fight ensued. Community members argued closing the school would only further what they saw as a pattern of underinvestment in black schools and neighborhoods. At first, the school board decided not to close the school, but a year later, in 2013 with enrollment now around 270 -- as still more parents chose to enroll their children at other schools and with performance slipping lower -- the board approved a plan that would transform the school from a traditional, neighborhood campus to a special magnet program.
That fall, the new school opened as the Baylor College of Medicine Academy at Ryan. By many accounts, the school is thriving. It earned every distinction possible by the state in its most recent accountability ratings. Students from all over the district are eager to attend the campus that once struggled to attract students. Hundreds of students are on a waitlist.
But outcomes are less clear for the students who once attended Ryan. Instead of Ryan, they’re now zoned to Cullen, a middle school roughly four miles away that had only slightly higher test scores in the 2010-2011 school year. Between 2004 and 2011, Ryan had been ranked "academically unacceptable" by the state three times. Cullen: once. Neither was ever ranked anything above "acceptable," the lowest passing ranking the state offered. Shortly after Ryan closed, under a new set of state standards, Cullen was rated "improvement required" in state accountability ratings for the 2014-2015 school year.
The federal grant that helped fund the creation of the medical academy is meant to help districts desegregate their schools and reduce “minority group isolation.” Indeed, the academy boasts diverse numbers; its student body is 11 percent Asian, 36 percent African-American, 45 percent Hispanic and 7 percent white. Cullen, where Ryan’s overwhelmingly black student population was re-zoned to, is 84 percent African-American and 14 percent Hispanic, according to the district’s numbers.
Most of the kids now zoned to Cullen, go to Cullen. Only 85 attend the magnet school at Ryan, compared to 557 in-zone students who attend Cullen, according to the latest district demographic report.
Even though there’s still a school at Ryan, the neighborhood lost its school.
“It is just not a good experience for a community to lose a school,” said Howard. “It creates so much negative impact on communities.”
Districts close schools for a variety of reasons, but under-enrollment and poor academic performance are the reasons most often given, particularly when funding is often tied to both. “If you close and consolidate campuses, the students will be able to take money to another campus,” said Juliet Stipeche, a former HISD board member recently appointed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner as the city's first education czar, explaining the logic behind school closures. “The additional resources will allow them to have more programs, maybe hire additional teachers and it will all work itself out.” But that scenario, she said, rarely plays out. “I never really saw an outcome that was ideal,” said Stipeche, who was a vocal critic of many of the district’s recent school closures.
Now, a new report from the Kinder Institute’s Houston Education Research Consortium, a partnership between the district and Rice University, confirms that students displaced by a school closure rarely end up benefitting academically from their new school. An analysis of 27 school closures from 2003 to 2010 in HISD found that school closures disproportionately displaced black and poor students, and “while students generally transferred to slightly more advantaged and academically higher-performing schools, few transferred to HISD’s highest-performing schools.”
School systems elsewhere have made headlines for massive rounds of layoffs and school closures. In Chicago, the board of education voted to close 50 schools in 2013. Michelle Rhee, then head of D.C.’s schools, closed more than 20 schools and famously appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 2008, standing in a classroom with a broom in her hands.
Houston’s school district has avoided such drastic moves. Over the study period, the district closed 46 schools, averaging roughly 6.5 schools per year. Twenty-six of those schools were traditional public schools while the rest were alternative or charter schools.
HISD School Closures 2003-2010
Source: Houston Education Research Consortium. Map by Leah Binkovitz.
But even without any single massive round of cuts, the closures have impacted thousands of students. Though students generally went to slightly better performing campuses, the schools they wound up at were still largely low-performing relative to the district. Fifty-two percent of the roughly 4,100 displaced students tracked in the study ended up attending schools in the bottom third of the district in math achievement, and 43 percent ended up at schools in the bottom third for reading.
“They couldn’t go much lower in terms of school achievement, so it’s not surprising that displaced students attended slightly higher performing schools, but if you look at how much higher performing, not a lot,” explained Kori Stroub, a researcher with Rice University who co-authored the research brief with Meredith Richards, an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University.
“It was sad to see that so many of the fears I had turned out to be true,” said Stipeche of the research brief.
“I think the troubling thing is that, it’s kind of a mixed bag,” said Stroub. “Closures have the potential to academically benefit certain students, but they can also have lasting negative consequences.” If a student transfers to a high-enough performing school, said Stroub, it can make a positive impact on test scores. But few students experienced that. “White students,” the brief found, “were significantly more likely to transfer to high-performing schools than black or Hispanic students.”
Knowing that one of the reasons schools close is academic performance, Stroub and Richards tracked test scores for the displaced students and found that there generally wasn’t an improvement in scores when compared to non-displaced students of similar backgrounds. So, when researchers looked at test scores four years after a school closure, displaced students had generally comparable scores on state math exams to scores of their non-displaced peers.
For reading scores, however, displaced students slightly under-performed relative to comparable non-displaced students. The difference is, on average, one test question four years after closure. The negative difference is larger for students who end up at low-performing schools, with roughly a four-point gap for both reading and math scores between displaced and non-displaced students by the fourth year after a closure.
And while that might not seem like a lot, Richards noted that “on average, displaced students have significantly flatter growth trajectories than their non-displaced peers,” meaning that displaced students’ test scores progressed at a slower rate than similar students who didn’t experience a closure. Since most school closures happen at the elementary school level, said Richards, the implications could be far-reaching.
She also noted that since school closures tend to disproportionately affect low-income and black students, “this holds the potential to contribute to the already troubling achievement gap between historically disadvantaged populations and their peers.”
In the end, the district has a degree of control over these outcomes. “Because districts ultimately choose which schools close and to which schools displaced students transfer, districts have some degree of control over how closures will impact the achievement of the students they displace,” said Stroub.
According to district policy for closing under-enrolled schools, officials must evaluate “the adequacy of the instructional program in receiving schools,” as well as factors like the facility quality itself, access to the new campus and other factors. Meanwhile, schools that are deemed academically unacceptable by the state for three consecutive years can also be closed under district policy.
“We are proud that HISD has managed to avoid the extensive school closures that we have seen in other large urban school systems,” said Jason Spencer, press secretary for the district, in a statement. “This is another important study from HERC that underscores the importance of strengthening Houston’s neighborhood schools.”
It isn’t just closures that can be harmful. The threat of closure can have ill effects on a school too, Stroub said. “When the writing is on the wall, things really go down hill,” Stroub said. “You can see it. Enrollment drops. Teacher turnover increases. When everybody finds out a school is potentially going to close, things kind of go crazy in that school.”
Reflecting on her experience at Ryan Middle School, Howard agreed that the school’s final years were among its most challenging. Once the decision is made to close a school, it can feel like a death sentence to a neighborhood, she said. “You lose so much when schools close,” Howard said. “Where do we go now, how do we get to know each other, how do we bond?”
And because there’s a strong correlation between a school’s socioeconomic makeup and which schools are closed, the decision can further hurt a struggling area.
For many neighborhoods affected by extreme poverty, schools represent the last remaining institution with access to resources, support and opportunity. “Once that’s gone, what is put in place to replace that?” asked Stipeche.
The district said it has no current plans to close any more schools.