Erasure and Survival: Creating a Future and Managing a Past in a Restructuring High School
by Anne Galletta & Jennifer Ayala — 2008
Background/Context: With the growth of the small-school movement, many urban districts have restructured large underperforming high schools into new, small high schools or schools-within-a-school designed to engage adolescents in rigorous and meaningful learning along with strong teacher-student relationships. In the case of this study, the culmination of state and city school system regulation and support, the involvement of the teachers union and persistent community demands led to the closing of this comprehensive high school. Known for its persistent academic failure, it was reopened as a complex of several new schools and a phaseout school to better serve this multiracial, predominantly Latino, poor and working-class community.
Focus of Study: The study findings focus on the multiple dimensions of small-school restructuring, underscoring the fragile balance between creating a future and managing a past in a newly restructured former comprehensive urban high school.
Research Design: This was a qualitative, ethnographic study examining the first year of school restructuring.
Data Collection: Primary data collection methods were semistructured interviews, participant observation, and archival study. We interviewed community leaders, school system officials, and 36 individuals from a representative sample of teachers and parents. Additionally, we conducted six student focus groups.
Findings and Conclusions: Extending the literature on small schools, reconstitution, and organizational change, this study provides a close look at the dilemmas of the opening year of a restructuring high school. Noting how frequent acts of erasure were employed in response to many first-year challenges, we link these acts of erasure to the fundamental desire on the part of schools to survive their first year. Key to the conceptualization of erasure is its relationship with the intent on survival. We note a contradiction evident in our conceptualization: Although we underscore the immense potential for educational change through the process of restructuring, we also suggest that these processes of erasure and survival have the potential to suppress the kind of conflict and turbulence often necessary for productive institutional transformation. The phenomenon of erasure in relation to survival has troubling implications for efforts to preserve a community’s legacy of struggle and a history of resistance toward distant, often antagonistic, educational bureaucracies. The study poses questions about the use of school closure in current school accountability policy enactments and, more broadly, emphasizes the complexity of the school restructuring process.
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