Student Interpretations of a School Closure: Implications for Student Voice in Equity-Based School Reform
by Ben Kirshner & Kristen M. Pozzoboni — 2011
Background/Context: School closure is becoming an increasingly common policy response to underperforming urban schools. Districts typically justify closure decisions by pointing to schools’ low performance on measures required by No Child Left Behind. Closures disproportionately fall on schools with high percentages of poor and working-class students of color. Few studies have examined how students interpret or respond to school closures.
Purpose: Our purpose was to document narratives articulated by students about the closure of their high school. Doing so is important because students, particularly students of color from low-income families, are often left out of policy decisions that affect their lives.
Population/Participants: Research participants were recruited from the population of youth who had attended the closed school and who remained in the district during the subsequent year. Twenty-three percent of students at the school were African American, 75% were Latino, and 2% were White. Over 90% of students were eligible for free and reduced lunch. A total of 106 students responded to surveys and peer interviews, and 12 youth who had dropped out of school participated in focus groups.
Research Design: This was a youth participatory action research (YPAR) study, designed collaboratively by former Jefferson students, university researchers, and adult community members. Data sources included open-ended surveys, peer interviews, focus groups, and field notes describing public events and YPAR meetings.
Findings: Our data show that most respondents did not agree with the decision to close their school. Student disagreement surfaced two counternarratives. First, students critiqued the way the decision was made—they felt excluded from the decision-making process that led to closure. Second, they critiqued the rationale for the decision, which suggested that students needed to be rescued from a failing school. Students articulated features of Jefferson that they valued, such as trusting relationships with adults, connection to place, and sense of belonging, which they felt were discounted by the decision.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Evidence from this study lends support to developmental and political justifications for robust youth participation in equity-based school reform. By developmental justification, we mean evidence that young people were ready to participate under conditions of support, which counters discourses about youth as immature or unprepared. By political justification, we mean evidence that youth articulated interests that were discounted in the decision-making process and that challenged normative assumptions about school quality. In our conclusion, we point to examples of expanded roles that students could play in decision-making processes.
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