The Downside to School Closures: A Tale of a Rural School

7 Feb

Public schools are pillars of the community in which they serve – and rightfully so, given that they are funded by the community itself. That has never been more true than in Hawthorne, FL. With a city-wide population of just over 1,400, Hawthorne is the very definition of “small town.”

It’s no wonder the city’s only Middle/High School (Hawthorne Middle/High School, or HMHS) has a population of just over 300 students. Even so, the school is responsible for educating third and fourth generations of families, many of whom still live in the area. Students not only go to school together, but live in the same community, go to the same churches and shop at the same grocery stores. In addition to serving as a place to learn, the school is often a second home to many, providing socializing, sports and mentoring. This sense of community may come to a screeching halt if the middle/high school closes its doors in the coming year because of HB7069 (passed in 2017), which forces schools with low grades for multiple years to face closure or turnover into a privately managed charter school.

What’s the real story?
Many have questioned the validity of the school grading system, especially when using it for high stakes decisions such as closing schools. The system has become progressively more difficult in recent years, while the consequences have increased at the same time. A school grade measures not only academic issues, but social as well, as family issues such as mobility or illness can affect a student’s ability to perform well on standardized tests. With such a small student population, a small percentage of student test scores at HMHS can have a large impact on the school grade.

At a more granular level, the grading formulas seem to favor larger schools in more affluent areas. In addition to scores from standardized tests, (which have known biases against low income populations), at the middle and high school levels, school grades are based on “Acceleration Success,” as defined as the following: High School: AP, IB, AICI or Dual Enrollment or Industry Certification; Middle School: EOCs or Industry Certification. Of those programs, HMHS is able to offer only a small number of dual enrollment opportunities and industry certifications. There are no AP courses.  Because of budget, the small population of HMHS does not afford students the opportunity to participate in many of these success measures, thus putting the school at an automatic disadvantage when calculating school grades.

Who is really served by closing neighborhood schools?
Upon learning about the school’s potential closure, members of the community came together from far and wide to show their support. Alumni from as long ago as 1966 contributed to a blog to share their successes, and show naysayers what has become of students who attended HMHS. Read their stories here.

After the school lost much-needed Title I funding in the same year, this rural community raised thousands of dollars to fund an instructional math program. Businesses sponsored school supplies drives, with individuals dropping off copy paper at the beginning of the school year. A mentor program was started, with over 20 participants. A new PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association) chapter was formed, with 35 members at its inaugural meeting.

The community, parents, students and staff do not want their school to close. In a world where choice is heavily promoted, they choose Hawthorne. The value in neighborhood schools is not lost on this community.  As the largest employer in the city, the school’s closure would disrupt more lives than just the students.

Other schools in the district do not want HMHS to close. Closing the school would mean busing over 300 students to schools over 20 miles away, and most likely rezoning other schools to accommodate the population increase.

Closing schools disrupts lives. It dismantles communities. It’s not helpful for education. Schools like Hawthorne need more support, not bad school “grades” and closure threats. We are calling on the Department of Education, the Board of Education and the Florida Legislature to reconsider the negative effects of HB7069 on schools, allowing for more flexibility in turnaround plans for struggling schools.

Megan Hendricks, HMHS c/o 1992 and President, Alachua County Advocates PTA

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