School closures hit black, poor students the hardest
By the time Ryan Middle School in the Houston Independent School District was at risk of being closed down the by the district, enrollment had dropped from more than 800 students to roughly 300 in a decade, according to numbers from the Texas Education Agency. The historic school that had long anchored the Third Ward community around it was still deemed academically acceptable by the state in 2012, but inside the brick walls, it was a different story, according to Arva Howard.
Staff turnover was high, teachers were often absent and the building that had housed one of the first schools for black children in the city now languished, according to Howard, a longtime member of the school's shared decision making committee that acts as an advisory group to the principal. Howard's son attended Ryan not long before the district first proposed closing it in 2012.
A painful fight ensued. Community members argued closing the school would only further what they saw as a pattern of under-investment in black schools and neighborhoods. At first, the school board decided not to close the school, but a year later, in 2013 with enrollment now around 270 — as still more parents chose to enroll their children at other schools and performance slipping lower — the board approved a plan that would transform the school from a traditional, neighborhood campus to a special magnet program.
That fall, the new school opened as the Baylor College of Medicine Academy at Ryan. By many accounts, the school is thriving. It earned every distinction possible by the state in its most recent accountability ratings. Students from all over the district are eager to attend the campus that once struggled to attract students. Hundreds of students are on a wait-list.
But outcomes are less clear for the students who once attended Ryan. Instead of Ryan, they're now zoned to Cullen, a middle school roughly four miles away that had only slightly higher test scores in the 2010-2011 school year. Between 2004 and 2011, Ryan had been ranked "academically unacceptable" by the state three times. Cullen: once. Neither was ever ranked anything above "acceptable," the lowest passing ranking the state offered. Shortly after Ryan closed, under a new set of state standards, Cullen was rated "improvement required" in state accountability ratings for the 2014-2015 school year.
The federal grant that helped fund the creation of the medical academy is meant to help districts desegregate their schools and reduce "minority group isolation." Indeed, the academy boasts diverse numbers; its student body is 11 percent Asian, 36 percent African-American, 45 percent Hispanic and 7 percent white. Cullen, where Ryan's overwhelmingly black student population was re-zoned to, is 84 percent African-American and 14 percent Hispanic, according to the district's numbers.