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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.

In the winter of 2006, a large urban school district, citing low test scores and declining enrollment at one of its oldest schools, announced that it would close Jefferson High School (pseudonym). Jefferson was attended by African American and Latino students, 92% of whom were eligible for free or reduced lunch. The district pledged to reopen the school after one year for incoming ninth graders. Current students were told to find other schools for their remaining high school years. District officials defended it as a “rescue mission” for Jefferson students. Most students, however, opposed the decision. They expressed their disagreement at public forums, and they organized protests, including a walk-out to district headquarters.

Students’ responses underscored a dramatic disjuncture between students’ and policy makers’ narrative frames. We wondered: If the school was so “bad,” why did students fight to keep it open? What might we learn from student perspectives about addressing the problems of struggling urban schools?

This article is based on data collected as part of a youth participatory action research (YPAR) project, in which students and adult researchers documented students’ opinions and feelings about the closure. In our implications section, we argue that the perspectives articulated by students point to the importance of robust youth participation in equity-based reform.


Since the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), school closure has become an increasingly common response to underperforming urban schools (Lipman & Haines, 2007; Maxwell, 2006; Olson, 2006; Wiley, Mathis, & Garcia, 2005). In May 2009, Arne Duncan, the Obama administration’s secretary of education, announced a plan to use new funding resources to “prod local officials to close failing schools and reopen them with new teachers and principals” (Quaid, 2009). We define closures as situations in which staff and students must transfer to new schools, even if the schools themselves reopen in subsequent years. This is different from school conversion, in which a large comprehensive school is broken into small schools (Galletta & Ayala, 2008). Districts typically justify closure decisions by pointing to schools’ low performance on measures required by NCLB (Maxwell, 2006). Closures disproportionately fall on schools with high percentages of poor and working-class students of color (Valencia, 2008). With the exception of recent work by Lipman (Lipman & Haines; Lipman & Person, 2007), we did not find empirical studies that discussed how students interpreted or responded to school closures in urban communities.1

Closures are often accompanied by conflict and controversy. Lipman and Haines (2007), drawing on archival analysis and participatory research, reported that school closures in Chicago, justified in the name of improving achievement, were part of a broader effort to gentrify low-income African American neighborhoods and lay the groundwork for school privatization. Grassroots opponents fought to maintain democratic forms of school governance and interpreted school closure as destructive to the community. In Washington DC, where district officials proposed to close schools showing poor achievement, similar protests occurred. Parents argued that the burden of closures was falling disproportionately on low-income African American students and that they had not been adequately included in the decision-making process (Maxwell, 2007).

These examples underscore the political nature of school closure. Although proponents may view them as technical decisions made in the name of improving achievement, in many cases, they also call attention to political and racial inequities in a city. Who has power to make such decisions, and who should be at the table when deciding? An emerging literature on student voice presents several arguments for the importance of student participation in decision-making.


Longstanding practice in American schools and social services has been to treat high school students as dependent recipients of services (Checkoway & Richards-Schuster, 2006). This status, although providing important legal protections, reinforces social constructions of youth as immature and restricts them to limited forms of participation (Vadeboncoeur, 2005).

We draw a distinction between limited and robust forms of student leadership. Student leadership too often takes a limited form, such as planning dances or occupying symbolic roles, particularly in schools serving low-income students (Kahne & Middaugh, 2009; McFarland & Starmanns, 2009). We define robust student leadership, on the other hand, in terms of opportunities for “student voice”—in which students give input about the quality of their schools and participate in decision-making settings where reform decisions are made (Mitra, 2004; Rubin & Silva, 2003). Promotion of student voice rests on a view of youth as capable public actors rather than clients of school-based services (Checkoway & Richards-Schuster, 2006). Examples of student voice include school-based youth–adult partnerships comprising students and teachers (Mitra), seats for students on decision-making bodies (Thiessen & Cook-Sather, 2007), youth organizing groups based outside of schools (Ginwright, 2003), and YPAR teams (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Torre & Fine, 2006). Such opportunities, however, are the exception rather than the rule (Cook-Sather, 2007).

Three distinct arguments contribute to a rationale for robust student voice. The first is a moral argument that children are subjects with rights. This notion is the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is not yet ratified in the United States (Zeldin, Camino, & Calvert, 2003). Article 12 of the Convention states, “All children . . . have the right to: a) articulate their views and express their views freely, b) be heard in all matters affecting them, including policy matters, and c) have their views taken seriously and in accordance with their age and maturity” (cited in Zeldin et al., p.4).

A second argument is rooted in the view that adolescents are developmentally ready to participate under conditions of support (Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Flanagan & Faison, 2001). Recent studies of youth activism show high school youths’ capacity for strategic thinking, decision-making, and collective problem-solving (Kirshner, 2007; Larson & Hanson, 2005; Youniss & Hart, 2005). Many youth of color, in particular, experience contradictions between mature, adult-like roles they play in their families—caring for siblings, contributing to family income, or translating for monolingual parents—and their limited roles in school (Burton, Obeidallah, & Allison, 1996; Orellana, Reynolds, Dorner, & Meza, 2003; Rogoff, 2003). As proponents of popular education have long-argued, youth are experts in their social worlds; they possess knowledge and insights that can be a resource for school reform decision-making (Cammarota, 2008; Freire, 1970/2002; Watts & Flanagan, 2007). Moreover, many young people criticize and resist policies that they do not perceive to be in their interests (Ginwright, Noguera, & Cammarota, 2006; Watts & Flanagan).

This developmental justification does not romanticize or essentialize youth (Cammarota & Fine, 2008). Young people may lack skills for democratic participation; they may be just as likely as adults to attribute the root cause of problems to individual behavior and ignore structural or contextual influences (MacLeod, 1987). Research on human development suggests, however, that the most effective response to youth’s novice status is to provide authentic opportunities to participate, rather than maintain their segregation from adult institutions (Larson, 2000; Rogoff, 2003). Student voice experiences, in other words, offer opportunities for civic development, such as political agency, teamwork, and public speaking (Mitra, 2004; Rubin & Jones, 2007).

The third justification for student voice is political and pragmatic. It borrows from analyses of community organizing as a force for equity-based reform in communities of color (Fruchter, 2007; Lipman, 2004; Oakes & Rogers, 2006). According to this line of research, equity-focused reform is not merely a set of technical challenges solved through rational deliberation by experts. Instead, substantive equity reform confronts normative and political barriers, or what Renee, Welner, and Oakes (in press) called the “zone of mediation.” For example, Lipman (2004) chronicled the ways that school reform decisions reinforced racial and class divisions in Chicago and further marginalized those who were the intended beneficiaries. Equity-based reform, therefore, requires the participation of those who are its targets and who have been most affected by inequitable policies. Recent case studies show how community organizing has contributed to educational change in districts that have been historically unresponsive to the interests of poor neighborhoods (Fruchter; Warren, 2005).

Although this political rationale for community participation has focused on parents and adults, emerging research suggests that it should be extended to youth. High school youth are challenging their exclusion from the political sphere in increasing numbers, sometimes in alliance with districts (Ginwright et al., 2006). For example, youth organizers from the Baltimore Algebra Project investigated school finance issues when their peer-to-peer tutoring program was cut from the district budget. After they learned of a court ruling that the state of Maryland owed the city an additional $200 million per year in school funding, they pressured the state to honor its legal obligation (Warren, Mira, & Nikundiwe, 2008). In Los Angeles, youth organizing groups partnered with community organizations to persuade the school district to make college-level classes the default for all students (Renee et al., in press). Such efforts also influence the normative climate: In both cases, students challenged societal discourses that cast urban youth of color as the cause of social ills and school failure (HoSang, 2006). Examples such as these demonstrate the ways that student voice confronts the political and normative barriers surrounding equity-oriented reform.

High school youths’ developmental capacities, coupled with the political achievements of student organizing groups, call for greater attention to student voice, particularly in cases in which students mobilize and articulate their interests. To analyze and present student perspectives voiced about the Jefferson closure, we turn to narrative theory.


Contradictory stories circulated about Jefferson High School and why it was closed. Proponents at the district level alleged that it was a failing school whose students needed rescuing. Many students and community members defended its strengths and saw the closure as punitive toward students of color. We draw on narrative theory to make sense of these contradictions (Bruner, 1990; Daya & Lau, 2007; Ochs & Capps, 2001). Narrative theory, with its skepticism toward one independent truth, enables the observer to consider multiple conflicting accounts of one event. In this study, it provided a tool to analyze the logic and rationality of young people’s interpretations alongside policy maker interpretations (Cook-Sather, 2002).

We call attention to two aspects of the role of narratives in education policy. First, narrative frames enable the teller to shape the ideological terrain in which policy is made; they confer a particular kind of logic on a policy (HoSang, 2006; Islam, 2007; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). To challenge or criticize a policy, therefore, often involves challenging the assumptions of the narrative in which it is cast, not merely the fine points of the policy. Such efforts can be thought of as “counternarratives” (Bamberg, 2007). Counternarratives are stories articulated by oppressed groups that contest or disrupt the common sense veneer of dominant narratives (Duncan, 2002; Howard, 2008).

Second, just as policy narratives signal specific ideological assumptions, so too do they construct target populations (Schneider & Ingram, 1993). For example, California’s Proposition 21, which required more juvenile offenders to be tried in adult courts and increased penalties for “gang-related” activities, exploited images of youth of color as threatening and dangerous (Kwon, 2006). On the other hand, the yet-to-be passed Dream Act, which would enable undocumented immigrant youth to attend college or join the military and then apply for legal citizenship, positions immigrant youth as examples of the American Dream (Pluviose, 2007). These identity-relevant messages, whether intentional or not, are particularly salient for adolescents, who are figuring out where they fit in their social and cultural worlds.

Our study foregrounds the various narratives that students articulated about Jefferson High School and the closure. We asked: What narratives did students construct in opposition to the decision? How did those differ from policy narratives? How can analysis of student responses be useful to those engaged in reform and those whose lives are directly affected by reform?



Jefferson High School is located in large urban school district, called here Riverside.2 (Because of institutional review board agreements, we use pseudonyms to refer to the school, city, and participants.) For over 100 years, Jefferson was a flagship school for the district and a cornerstone of its historically African American neighborhood. It was known for quality academic programs, champion athletic teams, and strong vocational training. Its halls boast murals of distinguished alumni, including mayors and civil rights leaders.  

From 1970 to 1996, integrated by court-ordered busing, Jefferson served an economically and racially diverse student body drawn from multiple neighborhoods across the city. After 1996, with the end of court-ordered busing, narrower attendance boundaries, and demographic shifts in Riverside, Jefferson became composed of African American and Latino students who lived in the surrounding neighborhood. Table 1 summarizes these demographic shifts between 1995 and 2006.

Table 1. Changing Demographics of Jefferson 1995–2006


1995–1996               Last Year of Busing


Year 1 Postbusing

2006                   Year of the Closure

African American












Eligible for free/reduced lunch




In 1997, the first year after these changes took place, overall school performance began to decline. In 2000, despite staff and faculty efforts to boost student achievement, Jefferson was rated unsatisfactory based on the results of the state achievement test. The following year, Jefferson was converted from a comprehensive high school into three small schools. According to evaluations of this process, the conversion occurred without adequate support from the district or time to plan and solicit input from teachers, students, and parents. Each school operated autonomously with its own name, principal, and curriculum. Although there were variations in implementation among the three small schools, aggregate test scores failed to increase, and by 2005, Jefferson’s combined School Accountability Report index was the lowest of Riverside’s high schools.

According to youth researchers with whom we collaborated, two of the most prominent problems at the school prior to the closure were dwindling resources and lack of academic rigor. Because of per-pupil funding, declines in enrollment at Jefferson contributed to a vicious cycle: Fewer students meant fewer resources, such as elective or Advanced Placement (AP) classes, access to technology, and classroom supplies. A graduate of Jefferson who was part of our research team described what it was like for her in her first year of college:

It was so frustrating because in high school I took all of the AP classes I could. I went to the highest math level I could because I wanted to be prepared when I went to college. And when I got there it was just like a waste of time. . . . Like I could have just got my GED and came to college. I just felt so unprepared. (Interview)

Jefferson was not the only school in the immediate neighborhood to have undergone changes after court-ordered busing ended in 1996. The local middle school, for example, was closed in 2004 because of poor performance and converted into a charter school that served 200 fewer students. Its feeder elementary school had acclaimed educational programs relocated from the Jefferson neighborhood to other parts of the city. These changes, which amounted to a steady erosion of high-quality educational opportunities in the neighborhood, contributed to a climate of mistrust toward the district felt by many neighborhood residents.


In 2005, averaged across the three small schools, fewer than 5% of students were proficient in math, and fewer than 9% of students were proficient in writing. Jefferson enrollment had dropped by 47% since fall 2002. District officials expressed concern that continued declines in enrollment would mean even fewer resources for the remaining students at Jefferson. A district budget deficit, combined with underutilized space in several high schools, exacerbated the issue. In the winter of 2006, Riverside School District (RSD) officials held a meeting to inform the Jefferson school community about a reform proposal to reconsolidate the three small schools into one comprehensive school. According to newspaper accounts, participants were reassured that the school would not be closed. When the school board members later met, however, they amended the proposal. After a second public meeting with students and community members, the board decided to close the school for one year and reopen it for ninth graders only. The current ninth-, tenth-, and eleventh-grade students were told to enroll in other district high schools for the next school year. Current teachers who were so inclined applied for other positions in the district. Jefferson was closed for one full year and then it reopened for the 2007–2008 academic year with a new cohort of 160 ninth graders.

In another paper, we use multiple methods to analyze the postclosure transitions and academic performance of the closure cohort (Kirshner, Gaertner, & Pozzoboni, 2010). The purpose of this article is to draw on qualitative data to analyze student narratives about the closure.  



Our research began soon after RSD’s announcement to close Jefferson. A local youth organizing group whose mission was to promote racial and educational justice, Students United, expressed interest to Ben (the first author) about commissioning an “impact study.” Members of Students United suspected that the closure would have a negative impact on many students. Adult staff members said that the closure of a neighborhood middle school two years earlier had led to scores of students dropping out. In partnership with Students United, we proposed a YPAR study to RSD. Representatives of RSD expressed interest in tracking the experiences of Jefferson students, but sought assurances that the study would represent the full range of student experiences and that the research team would share its findings with the district before sharing with the local public. After two meetings to clarify each group’s goals and interests, RSD became a partner in the research project.

The project began during the summer after the closure; youth organizers from Students United interviewed 23 peers. Data from these interviews were not included in this analysis because they were not tape-recorded, and the interview notes were incomplete. Kirshner drew on this experience, however, to organize a follow-up YPAR study during the subsequent year. Data from the school-year study, called here Tracing Transitions, were the primary sources for this article.

Tracing Transitions began in November 2006 and continued in different forms until May 2008. It was developed in partnership with Jefferson’s Youth Leadership Team (YLT), which had formed after the closure. The mission of the YLT, whose participants were former Jefferson students, was to monitor how the Jefferson cohort was doing across different schools and to organize social events that brought students together. Two YLT participants had also been members of Students United. The group was supervised by an RSD staff member with longstanding ties to the Jefferson community and a staff member who coordinated academic supports for the closure cohort. Ben and Kristen (the second author) approached the members and asked if they would like to add a research dimension to their work, which they did. After learning of the project, 4 additional former Jefferson students from another youth organization joined the project. In our initial meetings, the group decided that our purpose was to (1) find out Jefferson students’ interpretations about the Jefferson closure decision, (2) document their experiences in new schools in the subsequent year, and (3) generate recommendations for policy.

Ten former Jefferson students (8 in high school and 2 in college) and 4 adults (including the two authors) participated. The group comprised African American, Latino, and European American participants. Youth received monetary stipends for their work. The group met weekly from late October 2006 through early June 2007. Meetings included a combination of team-building, skill development, and project-related tasks, such as designing research protocols or analyzing data. Data analysis culminated with presentations to district officials and community members. Subsequent to those presentations, 4 participants stayed involved for a second year to conduct further data analysis, write a short article, present research findings at national venues, and discuss implications for youth rights with participatory research teams from across the United States. This collaboration was formed in the belief that young people should have the opportunity to participate in inquiry about institutions that shape their lives (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Cook-Sather, 2002; Oakes & Rogers, 2006). Jefferson students were experts in the phenomenon, and it affected them directly. The project provided opportunities for youth to develop research, planning, and joint decision-making skills, as well as meet with policy makers and network with youth activists.


Research participants were recruited from the population of youth who attended Jefferson at the time of the closure. For purposes of clarity, we distinguish “youth researchers” from “research participants.” Whereas youth researchers were former Jefferson students who designed and carried out the participatory action research project, research participants were former Jefferson students who responded to interviews and surveys, participated in focus groups, or spoke at public meetings. Because most of the data collection for this study took place in the year following closure, the study relied primarily on respondents who had been in ninth, tenth, or eleventh grade at the time of the closure. Table 2 provides demographic information about these students who were enrolled in RSD schools during the 2006–2007 year. In addition to students still enrolled in school, we recruited 12 former Jefferson students who dropped out of school after the closure to participate in focus groups.

Table 2. Jefferson Student Population in Comparison With Survey and Peer Interview Participants


Jefferson Students

Survey and Interview Participants1

Total N



Missing data





African American

109 (22.6%)

19 (17.9%)


365 (75.5%)

84 (79.3%)


6 (1.3%)

1 (0.9%)

Native American

3 (0.6%)


Not identified


2 (1/9%)




247 (51.1%)

52 (49.1%)


236 (48.9%)

52 (49.1%)

Not identified


2 (1.9%)

Grade levels3



149 (39.8%)

49 (46.2%)


94 (25.1%)

29 (27.4%)


131 (35.0%)

27 (25.5%)

Not identified


1 (0.9%)

1Ten students filled out surveys and participated in interviews.

2 Race/ethnicity and gender distributions are based on RSD records from June 2006, representing ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders at the end of the academic year when Jefferson was closed.

3 Grade-level distributions are based on a data set maintained by RSD personnel to track Jefferson students in the subsequent year. These data represent Jefferson students enrolled in RSD one year postclosure (June 2007).


Observations of public events (February–August 2006, three meetings). Ben attended three public meetings about the closure. Field notes document statements about the closure voiced at these events.

YPAR research meetings (June 2006–May 2007, 47 meetings). The group routinely engaged in conversations about how students interpreted the closure. These conversations were recorded by adult researchers in field notes.

Open-ended surveys (February–March 2007, 95 surveys). Youth and adult members of the research team created a two-page survey with open-ended prompts. Surveys were offered in English and Spanish. Spanish versions were written by bilingual team members and then reviewed and edited by a professional translator. Most questions focused on students’ experiences in their new schools, such as transportation, perceived support from adults, level of challenge in classes, and extracurricular activities. Two prompts that explicitly solicited opinions about Jefferson and the closure were central to our analysis in this article:

Adults at your school: Describe how you are treated by teachers or administrators. . . . Is this the same or different than when you were at Jefferson? Please describe.

Final thoughts: The Jefferson closure has caught people’s attention across the country. What do you think people should hear about it?

Survey respondents were recruited in two ways. The majority of respondents participated in lunch meetings at their school, where pizza was provided as an incentive, in response to invitations made over the loudspeaker. Some survey respondents were recruited by youth researchers between classes or on the bus to school.

Peer interviews (February–March 2007, 21 interviews). Tracing Transitions youth researchers completed 5- to 10-minute interviews and typed summaries of each interview. These peer interviews enabled us to hear from students who did not fill out surveys. The interview protocol asked students to describe what was best and worst about their new schools and what they thought people should hear about the closure. Youth researchers recruited interviewees by reaching out to former Jefferson students who went to their same new school. Some interviews were completed in Spanish, and some were completed in English. The protocols were short because youth researchers did not think respondents would have time for longer interviews.

Focus groups with “nonattenders” (April 2007; 2 groups). The two authors spoke with students who had dropped out because the surveys and peer interviews were limited to students who were still in school. We led two focus groups with a total of 12 (8 males and 4 females) former Jefferson students who had not graduated and were no longer attending school. These students are referred to in this paper as nonattenders. The groups were facilitated in English and comprised Latino and African American youth who were recruited through an organization whose mission was to help out-of-school youth return to school. Questions included: How have things changed for you since Jefferson closed? What do you think people should hear about the closure?

Interviews with youth researchers (July 2007, 8 interviews). The two authors interviewed 7 youth researchers and 1 adult researcher about the closure and the YPAR project.

Newspaper articles (February 2006–June 2007, 40 articles). Youth and adult researchers reviewed articles about the closure. This review helped to establish a timeline of events and identify narratives emphasized by the media.


Representativeness of sample. Table 2 provides demographic information about Jefferson students in the Riverside school system and compares with to our survey and peer interview sample. Focus group participants were not included in the table because we did not ask them to identify their ethnicity or grade levels. Table 2 shows that our survey and interview sample is closely matched with the ethnic and gender distribution of Jefferson students. We do not know what percentage of our sample was designated as English language learners. Although surveys were available in Spanish and nine of the peer interviews were completed by a youth researcher fluent in Spanish, it is possible that respondents were disproportionately represented by youth who were fluent in English. We did not link academic records to individual research participants, so it is possible that our sample does not represent the population’s variation in academic performance.

Selection bias. Unlike the announcements used to recruit most survey respondents, peer interviewees were recruited based on personal contacts. For this reason, it is possible that the 22 peer interviewees may have felt biased to share researchers’ views of the closure. We do not think this took place, however, for two reasons. First, youth researchers used an open-ended prompt to ask about impressions of the closure. Second, after comparing the distribution of codes for surveys and interviews, we did not detect meaningful differences.

Researcher bias. Researcher subjectivity shaped this analysis in multiple ways. For example, the authors of this article brought prior beliefs about the importance and credibility of youth perspectives. Youth researchers brought strong feelings about the closure process, which they viewed as too rushed and lacking student input. (There was some diversity of opinion among youth researchers about benefits associated with the closure.)

Researchers managed bias in three ways. First, for this article, the two authors treated surveys, peer interviews, and focus groups, rather than field notes or interviews with Tracing Transitions members, as the primary data sources. This ensured that youth researchers’ views would not be overrepresented in this analysis. Second, the Tracing Transitions team, including adult participants, discussed biases with each other by stating our goals for the study and our personal views of the closure. Doing so helped members distinguish personal views from those of respondents and clarify our purpose—which was to communicate the range of views expressed by Jefferson students, even if those were different from our own. YPAR, as a method, acknowledges bias as part of research, but it surfaces bias so that it can be “displayed, dissected, challenged, and pooled” (Fine, 2008, p. 223). Third, we collected data that could disconfirm or falsify our personal views of the closure. For example, surveys used open-ended language and were distributed to a representative group of Jefferson students. Just as important, when coding our data, we included codes for “benefits” as well as “challenges” so as to capture the range of views articulated by respondents.


Phase 1: Analysis of survey and peer interview data with youth researchers. The Tracing Transitions team worked collaboratively to identify major themes. First, the youth and adults tallied survey responses to give the group a sense of the distribution of responses in the data. Next, youth and adults identified seven important codes: relationships with adults, relationships with peers, benefits of the transition, challenges of the transition, comparisons of Jefferson with the new school, opinions about the closure, and attitudes about school in general. The group split into pairs; each pair was responsible for analyzing the surveys and interviews in terms of one of the seven codes. The pairs were instructed to highlight any statements that they thought were examples of the code. Highlighted statements were then typed into separate electronic files, so there was a long list of quotations for each of our seven codes. Next, the group reorganized into different pairs to analyze each coding file. Pairs were instructed to create subthemes by reviewing the specific quotations that had been selected. This constituted a second reliability check, because if the two analysts believed a quotation was not relevant to the code, they discarded it. In consequence, only quotations that had been agreed on by at least three people were included as examples of a particular code.

The Tracing Transitions team presented results summarizing students’ views of the closure and their experiences in new schools in two meetings—one with senior officials from the district and the other with community members. Consistent with YPAR, these meetings represented our first “actions” in which the group sought to link the research to policy recommendations. Feedback spurred further conversations among team members about the findings.

Phase 2: Analysis of all data sources by university researchers. The second phase of data analysis built on the work completed by the youth researchers, but focused specifically on the closure rather than students’ experiences in new schools. Three adult researchers (the two authors plus a third-year doctoral student) reanalyzed the data because we had not yet gained a satisfactory grasp of their nuances. This required a time commitment for which the youth researchers were no longer available. In this second phase, the three adult researchers met several times to discuss what stories about Jefferson they observed in the data using a narrative lens. Narratives refer to recurring stories in the data about Jefferson or the closure process, not specific kinds of data sources. After developing an initial list of codes, we coded the same data sources and met to discuss our interpretations several times. This led to a revised set of 18 codes that each evoked a different story about Jefferson. These researchers, working independently, coded the same 61 text statements and achieved an interrater reliability rating of .68 using Fleiss’ kappa for the coding system as a whole (King, 2004). We then split up the remaining data sources and coded them independently using NVIVO.

When this process was completed, we were able to view frequencies of specific stories as well as matrices that showed intersections between them. For example, consistent with LeCompte and Schensul (1999), we looked to see which codes were often linked together. We also examined internal variation. This enabled us to test whether views of focus group participants, for example, differed from survey respondents. It also enabled us to examine variation across ethnicity and grade levels. Once we had identified which stories about Jefferson were most robust, we wrote conceptual memos describing central themes (Miles & Huberman, 1994). For example, a prevalent story about Jefferson was that students felt a “sense of belonging.” Each analyst independently read through relevant data excerpts and identified what contributed to this sense of belonging for students, and we discussed our interpretations.

Phase 3: Member checks. We met multiple times with 4 youth members of Tracing Transitions and 1 adult community member to solicit their perspective on puzzles in our data, test the validity of our emerging claims, and discuss implications (Prasad, 2005). We also discussed our findings and solicited feedback from 4 additional community adults, 2 former Jefferson students, and 2 administrators from RSD.


We present findings in two sections. First, we summarize students’ judgments about the closure. Anger and opposition to the decision was the most common response. Second, we discuss two counternarratives voiced by students: Students critiqued the way the decision was made, and they articulated features of Jefferson that they valued, which were discounted by the decision. Our discussion section elaborates lessons from these counternarratives for future policy approaches to underperforming urban schools.


Initial Reactions

It is 9:05 pm and the open forum about Jefferson’s future, which began two hours earlier, is supposed to have drawn to a close. But students’ hands keep going up to speak. I’m a bit surprised. A few months ago I had met with Students United to discuss all of the problems they wanted to fix at Jefferson. If a school is failing, would students want it to shut down? Apparently not! Student comments convey a strong sense of pride in Jefferson and the neighborhood. One student said, “You’re putting barriers in front of us instead of removing ‘em.” Another student, dressed in her ROTC uniform, said, “We might be ghetto, but that’s who we are, and we’re proud of that.” (This elicited one of the loudest ovations from those in the crowd). Another student called for more elective classes and resources, saying, “Yeah, Jefferson does need changes, but not the way you see it.” Others talked about the deep connections they felt to teachers at Jefferson and called for investing in the school rather than shutting it down. (Field notes, 2/15/06)

The community forum was followed by the board’s decision the next day to close the school for one year and start over under new leadership with new students. According to newspapers, one day later, students used text messaging to organize a walk-out. Approximately 200 students traveled to the school district headquarters, where they stood outside in the cold and chanted, “Hell no, we won’t’ go!” In the weeks that followed, students sought to reverse the decision through letter writing, news conferences, meeting with district officials, and speaking at public forums while wearing T-shirts declaring “not down with the shut down.” The superintendent and school board president responded to criticism in a statement that defended the closure decision:

The Jefferson decision has been characterized as an “attack,” an action perpetrated on the school because the students who go there are primarily Latino and African American. Nothing could be further from the truth. We view the decision to move the current Jefferson students to other schools as an admission of complete failure by the district over many years and as a rescue mission for the children that are there [italics added].

The Following School Year

Our data suggest that this discordance between the viewpoints of students and policy makers persisted in the subsequent year. Roughly one year after the decision, when the Tracing Transitions group surveyed and interviewed their peers, 106 students were asked for their “final thoughts” about the closure. We coded responses to the open-ended prompt conservatively. For example, many students expressed sadness or a sense of loss, but because one could be sad but still endorse the decision, we did not code such sentiments as disagreement with the decision. Other students speculated about reasons why the school was closed, such as discrimination against students of color. Still others left it blank. Of the 36 students who explicitly conveyed agreement or disagreement, one person endorsed the decision, writing, “the school board is doing the right thing.” In contrast, 35 respondents wrote comments that conveyed disagreement with the decision. These included:

It was a great school and it shouldn’t have closed. It was a big mistake made by the superintendent and they should allow us all back to our school.

Jefferson should never have closed.

I think it was unfair to shut down Jefferson and that it didn’t help Jefferson’s problems it only made them worse.

Several others, whose responses were not counted as explicit statements of agreement or disagreement, used language that we coded as “emotionally upsetting.” For example, one student wrote, “The closure of Jefferson really hurt me and made me feel like there was no hope for me to amount to something if it wasn’t at Jefferson.” In our interactions with adults who worked with Jefferson students, such as tutors, dropout prevention specialists, and mentors, they described the experience using words such as “traumatic,” “upsetting,” “devastating,” and “painful.” We did not detect meaningful differences in viewpoints about the closure when we compared across grade levels or ethnicity. Member checks affirmed that opposition to the decision was widespread.


We also checked for diversity of viewpoints by speaking with students who had dropped out of school after the closure. Similar to themes raised in surveys and peer interviews, nonattending students felt that the closure caused increased hardship:

Are there other parts of the story you think people should know about if they’re going to close schools?

Student 1: They’re making it harder; they’re just making it harder.

Harder to do what?  

Student 1: To graduate. To go to school. To do what you want to do.  They just messed everything up.  

Student 2: Like why don’t they help us try to . . . they don’t they try to help us stay in school, you know?

Student 3: They just closed my school.

In a separate focus group, in response to the same prompt, a young person said, “You want to close our school down, then we’re going to go do something back to you; that’s how I see it.”

Both discussions conveyed these youths’ disagreement with the closure decision. In referring to it as “my school” or “our school,” they conveyed a sense of belonging to Jefferson.

In summary, evidence from various data sources spanning the announcement of the decision to roughly one year later suggests that most students disagreed with the decision; they did not share the district’s view that the closure was a rescue mission. Some readers may interpret student opposition as sentimental or irrational. This is where narrative theory, however, is useful, because it encourages the outside analyst to identify the coherence and logic in people’s sense-making about significant events in their lives. Our analysis identified two counternarratives articulated by students that motivated and explained student opposition.


Students articulated their opposition in terms of counternarratives about (1) how the decision was made and (2) features of Jefferson that they valued.

Critiques of the Decision-Making Process

Insufficient student input. At an early community forum with students, parents, and neighborhood residents, a school board member tried to persuade students that the school board had their best interests at heart. The board member said, “You seem to think we’re doing this to you. But we’re not. We’re doing it for you.” Our analysis suggests, however, that students did not want to be passive recipients of a decision made by others.

During a data analysis discussion, one of the youth researchers stated that students’ anger about the closure was more about how the decision was made than the decision itself:

Some felt that . . . the closure of Jefferson wasn’t as bad as the way that they closed it.  I mean if you’re going to close Jefferson, you can close it but I guess . . . at the last minute . . . I guess the process that they took, or I guess not taking a process, it just kind of made everything like off, just, like, off the wall.  

Interviewer: What was it about the process they took that made it worse?

Like, I don’t think that there was . . . any consideration for anyone. It was just like they decided to close it and there was nothing that the community could have did or said.

We did not find any instances in our data in which students felt that they participated adequately in the decision. We found many instances in which students articulated the feeling of being shut out of the process. Consider the following survey responses:

The Jefferson closure has caught people’s attention across the country. What do you think people should hear about it?

How they locked us out with no remorse.

How they didn’t care about how the students feel over this!

The district screwed us over and they are probably going to do it again. They don’t care about how this is going to affect us. Out of nowhere they decided to close the school.  

Well I don’t think they should hear anything else, or what would be the point of telling more people about it if they already closed the school and nothing and no one is going to change that.

These responses convey students’ feelings of powerlessness about the decision. Students referred to the decision as something done to them, against their will, that they had little power to stop. As one student said at a public meeting, “We are your animals to experiment on.”

Another source of evidence that students perceived a lack of input can be observed in their requests to participate in future decisions. Students United put out a press release calling for a “school closure policy that allows community input regarding all decisions around closing neighborhood schools.” Participants in the Tracing Transitions project articulated a similar recommendation at the end of their project.

Discrimination against Black and Brown students. In community meetings, many students and community members argued that the situation would not have played out in this way for a school located in a more affluent White neighborhood. Students received public support from a Riverside coalition of ministers who said that the decision was racist and drew connections between the experiences of these students and struggles that took place during the civil rights movement. Others drew connections between other school closures, Jefferson’s conversion into small schools, and this closure as evidence of a pattern of disregard for the community. At a press conference organized by Students United, one student said, “It is difficult to look at the eight schools in Southeast Riverside that are struggling without comparing them to the two brand new elementary schools being built a mile away in the shiny new Woodside development.”

Although only four statements explicitly alleged discrimination in the surveys, the topic came up in both focus groups with nonattenders when we asked them what story was most important to tell.

They try to make . . . schools for, like . . . rich kids and more, like, people that are intelligent, they . . . can . . . change the world . . . go be a president or be a lawyer and stuff. So they really don’t care about people down here that has low income, ‘cause they’re like, “They’re nothing, they’re just going to be the people that get welfare and get their income tax real cheap,” so that’s all they worry about.

These students’ reports of discrimination were sometimes tied to recollections that Jefferson was not the first of their schools to close. As one focus group member reported, “They closed all my schools I went to. They closed Jefferson and my middle school.”

Blaming Jefferson students. Despite claims to the contrary from district leaders, many students felt that they were being blamed for problems at the school. They pointed out that their test performance was cited as one of the principal reasons for closing the school. Also, the decision that the new school reopen without former Jefferson students implied, even if unintentionally, that their presence would be an obstacle to the reforms there. One youth researcher explained this phenomenon:

I think it’s about, “You guys decided to close our school, so that must mean we’re bad and we’re stupid.” So I don’t think really anyone from the district said that Jefferson was a bad school, but it’s just kinda how students took it. “Oh you’re going to close our school so that must mean that we’re bad and . . . we weren’t doing our jobs and we’re stupid and our scores are so low and we can’t get kids to come.”

Fourteen student respondents raised this point when asked for final thoughts in the surveys and interviews. For example, one survey respondent wrote, “I think they should hear not only bad things but good also. They should know that the students that attended there are smart.” Another wrote, “I think that they were wrong about us and that we deserved a chance.” In peer interviews, when asked for final thoughts, one responded by saying, "We are not as bad as people think we are.” Another said, “People label us as bad, stupid, or useless but people don’t know what it feels like to be forced out and no one will ever understand the struggles we face every day.” At a community meeting, one student, echoing the language of the School Accountability Reports, referred sarcastically to herself and her peers as “us unsatisfactory students.”

Summary. Students argued that the decision-making process was unfair because they did not have adequate input. Moreover, they felt that it unfairly targeted minority students and blamed students for problems at the school.

Redefining Jefferson High School

The focus on Jefferson’s low test scores as justification for the closure echoed a broader national discourse that uses test scores as a proxy for school quality (Hursh, 2006). Jefferson students, however, defined school quality in broader terms than performance on standardized tests. Students told a complex story about the school. In agreement with district decision makers, Jefferson alumni expressed frustration at the academic limitations at the school, citing their lack of preparation for college. Members of Students United and Tracing Transitions focused on the limited resources for learning at the school, such as its dearth of AP classes or college preparatory curricula. But criticisms of Jefferson were overshadowed in our data by statements defending Jefferson’s reputation and asserting strong attachments to the school. Student narratives about Jefferson amounted to a portrait of a school that provided a rich ecological context for them to develop trusting relationships and feel a sense of connection to school.

Table 3 lists the frequencies of stories that we heard about Jefferson from 106 students who filled out surveys or participated in peer interviews. These frequencies report how many students mentioned each story; if a student conveyed her sense of belonging multiple times, it was counted once. These frequencies are imperfect indicators because statements could be assigned multiple codes, and the codes, which were generated inductively, vary in their specificity. Nevertheless, they provide an indicator of students’ affection for the school and, in particular, students’ feelings of belonging and social relatedness.

Table 3. Stories About Jefferson Articulated in Surveys and Peer Interviews


Number of Respondents

Percent of Respondents

Positive views of adults (trust, support)



Positive assessment of school



Sense of belonging



Misrepresented as bad school






Connected to neighborhood






Fun; not too strict






Other positive



Insufficient resources



Weak academics






Negative assessment of school






Note. This table does not include stories articulated in research team meetings or interviews with youth researchers because we did not want to overrepresent the viewpoints of youth researchers. We did not include stories articulated in focus groups because we were unable to assign statements to individual students.

1 Percentages do not add up to 100 because most respondents articulated more than one story about Jefferson.

Similar to our analysis of views of the closure process, we did not detect meaningful differences in the distribution of frequencies based on ethnicity. Stories about Jefferson told in focus groups by students who had dropped out conveyed similar themes, with one exception: The theme of connection to community was more prevalent among focus group respondents.

Students’ statements contributed to a portrait of Jefferson as a community institution that supported their social and emotional development. Students felt cared for and known. In surveys, they reported that Jefferson was “a friendly place filled with love,” a place where “we felt like we belonged,” “you could be yourself,” and “everyone was understanding and not judging.” Students also spoke appreciatively of the caring relationships that transformed their high school into an environment where classmates were “like family” and “teachers were like older siblings.” As one member of Students United, who had not attended Jefferson, remarked, “These students were actually passionate about their school!” What was it about Jefferson that evoked a strong sense of belonging and affiliation for students? We identify three themes in students’ statements.

Connection to community. When we looked closely at the “sense of belonging” story, it was often intertwined with feelings of rootedness in the surrounding community. Jefferson was described as a foundation for its neighborhood that graduated numerous residents. Many students hoped that they too would graduate from the high school from which their older siblings, parents, and grandparents had graduated. One focus group participant said,

I wanted to graduate from there because my brother, he graduated 2006 at Jefferson, so I wanted to. . . . It was going to be my brother and then it was going to be my other brother and then it was going to be me. And then it was going to be my little brother.

Many students lived in close proximity to the Jefferson campus and to each other. When not at school, students described seeing one another around the neighborhood or at athletic and social events; they knew each other’s families and had learned how to navigate existing social or cultural divides in their community. This experience of being known and knowing others translated to feeling understood, protected, or looked after at school. One youth who had dropped out after the closure said, “I don’t know, Jefferson was just my home school and I fit there and I knew everybody, I knew I wasn’t going to be into no problems” (Focus group). Another focus group participant told a story about how family connections in the Jefferson community had kept him in school. He said, “At Jefferson, I wouldn’t leave ‘cause like my grandma down there, she’ll catch me. So I . . . had more discipline” (Focus group). Students’ sense of shared history, coupled with a small school environment, led many students to describe Jefferson as a place where “everyone knew everyone” and “people were real” (Surveys). As one person said at one of the community meetings, “This is Jefferson. This is the ‘hood. Holla!” This was a politicized sense of place, in that its symbolic meaning for students was related to the high percentage of African American and Latino residents who lived and went to school there. In the words of one youth researcher, “When you think of Jefferson you think of minorities, mostly Mexican and Black.” This image was a source of pride and collective identity.

Jefferson was like family. Eleven statements specifically used the metaphor of family to describe their experiences at Jefferson. (These were counted as part of the sense-of-belonging code). Students spoke of the love they both received from and felt for the people and place. “At Jefferson I felt like I was at home. I felt like the staff really did care about us and our education” (Survey). This familial connection was heightened by the fact that many school personnel knew students’ family members and did not hesitate to involve them in day-to-day affairs. One youth researcher told us a story about an interaction she had with a Jefferson security guard. He had worked at the school for over 40 years, and said to her, “I know your mama and she don’t play that way . . . if you don’t quit it [the behavior that initiated the interaction], I will go to your mama’s house right now” (Interview). This had its desired effect on the youth researcher, who stopped “messing around.”

Supported by school personnel. As shown in Table 3, when describing Jefferson, 39.6% of respondents expressed positive views of adults there. (No respondents expressed a negative view of Jefferson adults.) Teacher–student relationships were characterized as trusting, respectful, and nurturing. Students said they felt connected to the teachers because they could talk openly with faculty and believed that teachers were interested in their lives outside of school. For example, students wrote, “I loved my teachers at Jefferson. I trust them for everything” (Survey), and “At Jefferson they actually cared about what you learned” (Survey). Students said they felt as though “teachers wanted them to be in school” (Survey). In addition, students felt respected because teachers expected them to succeed and gave them room to make mistakes.

Five respondents described how trusting and respectful relationships with adults translated into individual academic support that helped them to manage challenges at school.  One student said, “The teachers at Jefferson would always know when I was struggling and were there to help,” and another said, “At Jefferson they helped you more. If you didn’t understand something, you got help right away” (Survey).  A focus group respondent explained, “My teacher used to always push me to do my work. So he kept me on track. And like this one teacher, he . . . was trying to boost me up to be more intelligent and help me out and stuff.” Students found the personal attention they received from adults to be motivating and perceived this as evidence that teachers cared about them and their education.

Consistent with our narrative approach, we do not treat these stories about Jefferson as objective accounts, but instead as students’ reconstruction of what Jefferson meant to them. Students may have been more inclined to identify positive features of Jefferson given the negative attention the school received through the closure process.


The decision to close Jefferson, although motivated by multiple factors, was cast as part of a rescue mission for Jefferson students. Students’ weak academic performance provided evidence that something needed to be done. Within the boundaries of this narrative, closing the school down and sending students to other schools made sense to many observers. But students did not view it this way. What was pitched as a rescue felt more like a punishment. Student anger and opposition took the form of two counternarratives. First, students critiqued a process that they felt shut them out. Second, students articulated strengths about Jefferson, particularly their sense of belonging and relationships there, which were jeopardized by the decision.



Why should young people have robust opportunities for participation in school reform decision-making? Findings from this study lend support to developmental and political justifications. 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 (Vadeboncoeur, 2005). By political justification, we mean evidence that youth articulated interests that were discounted in the decision-making process and that challenged prevailing assumptions about school quality (Renee et al., in press).

Developmental Justification

Students demonstrated their readiness to participate in decisions about Jefferson’s future in a few different ways. First, a critical mass of student leaders engaged in sustained efforts to participate in decision-making. Students United’s efforts to improve Jefferson began several years before the closure and continued after the decision. Members of the YLT studied the impact of the closure and discussed findings and implications in meetings with district leaders and national policy makers.

But our point is not solely about the active student leaders. We make a broader claim about the developmental readiness of ordinary Jefferson students to give input into the direction of their school. We interpret students’ anger as an indication of a contradiction they experienced between their limited opportunities to participate, and their capacity for judgment, reflection, and agency. Put another way, it signaled a contradiction between how they were positioned by the district and school board—as passive beneficiaries—and how many of them saw themselves. We infer that students were upset about their lack of input because they were ready for more meaningful participation.

In using the term readiness, we do not claim that students were experts in democratic deliberation or school finance issues. Instead, we mean readiness to participate and learn under conditions of support (Kirshner, 2008; Larson & Hanson, 2005). Rogoff’s (2003) research on guided participation, for example, shows how young people learn by having guided opportunities to observe and participate in mature community activities. Supporting student voice does not require adults to give up their decision-making roles, but instead to treat students as legitimate participants, with adults, in solving problems. Doing so is challenging because it defies taken-for-granted assumptions about age segregation between youth and adults that are built into the design of most schools (Eckert, 1989; Zeldin et al., 2003). But it is worth trying because of what participants—and school reform initiatives—stand to gain.

Moreover, the alternative, as suggested by data from this study, further marginalizes students. Students’ reactions suggested more than just unhappiness with a decision that they found inconvenient, but a sense of powerlessness. Students’ experience of powerlessness made alternative interpretations, such as that the closure was meant to keep them from succeeding, more compelling. Many students interpreted the closure as part of a historical pattern of divestment from Southwest Riverside schools because of their high proportion of students of color. We argue that a more participatory approach, in which students learned about the factors affecting the decision and policy makers learned about students’ views of the school before the decision was a fait accompli, could have begun to disrupt this pattern of marginalization.

Political Justification

Prior literature on equity-based school reform argues that the organized participation of historically marginalized communities is important because such groups are best equipped to represent their interests and, through political pressure, challenge political or ideological barriers to equitable reforms (Fruchter, 2007; Oakes & Rogers, 2006; Renee et al., in press). Although prior literature has tended to focus on adult community organizing, this study points to the centrality of youth of color to equity-based reform. We highlight three pieces of evidence from this study that support a political justification for expanded roles for youth.

First, Jefferson students articulated collective interests that were overlooked or discounted in the closure decision. Most significant of these was students’ articulation of a broader view of school quality that encompassed academics, caring relationships, and connection to place. Students valued going to a school where they could maintain ties to a community that nurtured and supported them. Although Jefferson was not meeting its academic mission, its problems were not equivalent to some failing urban schools, where students experience feelings of alienation or anonymity (National Research Council, 2003; Rubin & Silva, 2003; Valenzuela, 2005). In this sense, the small-school conversion appeared to have created stronger personalism for students. The stories we heard about Jefferson echo descriptions of high-quality community organizations, in which youth experience sense of belonging, support for cultural or racial identities, and connection to caring adults (Deutsch & Hirsch, 2002; McLaughlin, 2000). These social and emotional supports were especially important to those with a more fragile connection to school, as suggested by the experience of students who dropped out after the closure.

The combination of weak academic preparation and high social support at Jefferson presents a more complex view of a school than one that merely labels it as failing because of low test scores.3 Efforts to address the problems facing struggling schools should take into account their broader development function for youth (Eccles, Wigfield, & Schiefele, 1998; Klem & Connell, 2004). When addressing a struggling school, for example, it would be useful to know whether most students experience it as an anonymous, hostile environment or a supportive one. Considering recent estimates that only 52% of students in America’s largest cities graduate high school (Swanson, 2008), it is important that we understand why Jefferson students fought for the opportunity to attend their struggling school. Doing so would enable stakeholders to capitalize on the positive aspects of a school while simultaneously working to improve its weaknesses.

Second, students articulated counternarratives that challenged the normative ideological climate surrounding school reform in Riverside (Hursh, 2006). At public hearings and in our research team meetings, members of Students United and the YLT articulated a competing vision of what it would mean to support Jefferson students. According to this view, fairness demanded that Jefferson get the proper resources that it needed to thrive as a neighborhood school serving African American and Latino students. Students and community members attributed recent underperformance to a pattern of diminishing resources and disinvestment from feeder schools in their neighborhood. Consistent with arguments that reframe the achievement gap as an opportunity gap (Lipman, 2004; Torre & Fine, 2006), these students argued that the public is accountable for ensuring that students have resources that enable them to reach high academic standards. We do not know what impact these counternarratives made on the broader public, but they point to ways that youth participation can broaden public discourse about the problems of underperforming schools.

Third, we conjecture that when young people are part of decision-making settings, adult decision makers will be more likely to remember that students are legitimate stakeholders to whom they are accountable. Emerging research on joint governance in youth organizations suggests that youths’ presence contributes to fidelity to mission and changed perspectives toward youth (Zeldin et al., 2003).


What might a more participatory approach to addressing struggling schools look like? This question is particularly timely given the Obama administration’s push to fix failing schools (Gewertz, 2009). In highlighting promising innovations, we distinguish between insider and outsider approaches (Mitra, 2006).

Insider Approaches

Insider strategies build partnerships between students and adult personnel that contribute to site-based decision-making and changes to classroom instruction (Mitra, 2006). Such opportunities go beyond student councils by creating new structures that enable youth and adults to work together, such as strategic planning committees, student-guided neighborhood tours for teachers, or student-led professional development workshops (Mitra, 2007). One especially promising strategy in diverse urban schools is student action research (Jones & Yonezawa, 2008; Rubin & Jones, 2007). Administrators, parents, and students share a common interest in high-quality data that capture features of school quality and climate that are absent from NCLB-mandated measures but relevant to school improvement. In a project described by Jones and Yonezawa, for example, students collected data showing a wide discrepancy between students’ and teachers’ views of the level of challenge in their classes, which provoked conversations among teachers about how to respond. In another example, students in Oakland created a youth-authored School Accountability Report (SAR) that included variables such as student achievement, teacher quality, health and nutrition, and facilities (Duncan-Andrade, n.d.). These efforts to create broader measures of school quality leverage students’ expertise about their worlds and school leaders’ desire for useful data to complement measures of test performance. One potential limitation of insider strategies (not the ones described earlier) is if they become focused solely on technical questions, such as how to improve grading procedures or create stronger teacher–student relationships, without also addressing broader issues of equity in the district (Renee et al., in press). Another limitation is if student roles are just window dressing or tokenistic (Zeldin et al. 2003).

Outsider Approaches

Youth and community organizing groups based outside of schools, on the other hand, have shown their ability to hold political decision makers accountable to constituents and thereby promote equitable reforms (HoSang, 2006; Oakes & Rogers, 2006; Warren et al., 2008). Kwon (2006), for example, described how a pan-ethnic coalition of youth groups successfully defeated a plan to build a “super jail” for juvenile offenders in California. Effective organizing groups provide apprenticeship opportunities, in which youth learn from experienced organizers how to develop strategy, organize other students, and speak persuasively in policy-making settings (Kirshner, 2006).Youth organizing groups may be more likely to appeal to students who feel marginalized in school or are not academically successful (Ginwright, 2003). Further research is needed, however, that compares the effectiveness of insider and outsider approaches for accomplishing equity-based school reform.


Jefferson students’ narratives about the closure resist reductionist, either/or story lines—that their school was either good or bad, that students’ desire to keep Jefferson open meant they wanted to maintain the status quo, or that student voice is at the expense of adult roles. There are no easy solutions for chronically low-performing high schools such as Jefferson. But evidence from this study suggests that equity-based reform will be strengthened when adults work with, rather than for, students to address the complex challenges facing struggling schools.


This research was funded by grants from the Spencer Foundation, the Carson Foundation, and the University of Colorado. We are indebted to the members of the Tracing Transitions participatory research team, whose contributions were essential to this study. We also thank youth from Jefferson High School for telling their stories and sharing their perspectives. We thank Matthew Gaertner for his assistance analyzing data for this article. Several colleagues from the University of Colorado provided helpful feedback on earlier versions of this work.


1. We searched using keywords school and closure between 1998 and 2008. Our search turned up 91 articles that discussed topics such as rural school closures, military base closures, and charter school closures. Our reading of the abstracts suggested that only one article addressed the impact of closures on students.

2. Sources for demographic data come from evaluation reports, the state department of education Web site, and newspapers. Sources are kept confidential to protect the anonymity of the school and students.

3. This phenomenon has been documented in several other studies (American Institutes for Research & SRI International, 2006; Lee & Smith, 1999). An emerging consensus suggests that social support, also called personalism, is necessary but not sufficient for improving schools serving youth from high-poverty neighborhoods (Kahne, Sporte, de la Torre, & Easton, 2008; National Research Council, 2003). Lee and Smith’s research found, for example, that high social support did not contribute to student learning except in schools where there was also strong academic press. In schools with low personalism, strong academic press did not contribute to increases in student learning. The Jefferson case appears to reinforce these claims about the benefits and limits of personalism.


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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: 5/26/2022 7:59:02 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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