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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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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 8, 2011, p. 1633-1667
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16161, Date Accessed: 6/6/2020 5:03:44 AM

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About the Author
  • Ben Kirshner
    University of Colorado
    E-mail Author
    BEN KIRSHNER is an assistant professor in the area of educational psychology and adolescent development at the University of Colorado. His research examines how young people learn outside of school, develop collective identities, and exercise agency in social and political arenas. Dr. Kirshner’s ethnographic research about youth activism led to findings about effective adult guidance strategies and the roots of collective agency. Recent publications include “Guided Participation in Youth Activism: Facilitation, Apprenticeship, and Joint Work” (Journal of the Learning Sciences) and “Power in Numbers: Youth Organizing as a Context for Exploring Civic Identity” (Journal of Research on Adolescence).
  • Kristen Pozzoboni
    University of Colorado
    KRISTEN M. POZZOBONI is currently a doctoral candidate in the School of Education at the University of Colorado. Her research interests include adolescent development, youth participation in school reform, and community-based research. Recent work includes participation in a study that detailed the reform of a large, comprehensive urban high school into several small schools: Cuban, L., Lichtenstein, G., Tombari, M., Evanchik, A. & Pozzoboni, K. (in press). Against the odds: Insights from one district’s small school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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