Carver Academy sits in the middle of the Brewers Hill neighborhood just north of downtown. By every measure, this k-8 school is failing. Its students score poorly on achievement tests. Few neighborhood students attend the school. And every year a large percentage of the students leave the school only to be replaced by new students the following year.
In December, the superintendent recommended closing the school and expanding the popular eastside Maryland Avenue Montessori program to the Carver site. The lower grades would stay at Maryland. The upper grades would be transferred to Carver. Both sites would operate as one school.
But the middle income Maryland parents did not want their children being transferred to a site only blocks away from one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The Carver parents saw the closing of their school as a continuation of the gentrification of the Brewers Hill as poor black families are pushed out in favor of higher income residents.
So the superintendent decided not to move the upper grades from Maryland to the Carver site, but he did recommend that Carver be closed and the students be sent to other schools.
The problem was that there were no successful schools in the neighborhood other than Golda Meir which has entrance requirements in order for students to enroll. Other schools in the area had already been closed for principally the same poor academic outcomes.
Tensions in the Brewers Hill neighborhood are nothing new. In April of 2005, I wrote a feature article on this neighborhood for Milwaukee Magazine entitled “Hill of Dreams.”
I wrote that the gentrification of the neighborhood had started several years earlier. Poor black renters were being pushed out by higher rents. Poor black homeowners were being hit with a string of building code violations prompted by complaints from higher income neighbors. And when these poorer homeowners couldn’t afford to pay for fixing up their homes, they were forced to sell often to speculators who were cashing in on the gentrification.
In the middle of the Brewers Hill neighborhood sat Palmer elementary, which later became Carver Academy. School board director John Gardner tried to turn Palmer into a Montessori school. But the higher income neighbors were not willing to send their children to Palmer so long as most of children came from lower income families. The black families at Palmer fought the school’s closing and won.
So the idea that, in 2011, Superintendent Thornton would suggest that Carver again be considered as a possible Montessori site only confirmed to the black community that once again gentrification was on the table, and they were going to be pushed out.
But to where? Once again the administration had no answer.
This brings us to the real crux of the problem. Closing failing schools without offering children better educational opportunities elsewhere solves nothing and may even make the problems worse. These children have been shoveled off to one school after another with no educational stability.
Like many inner-city schools, Carver received castoff principals and teachers that higher income schools would have never tolerated. This is not to discredit the core of excellent teachers that continue to work in schools like Carver nor its newly appointed principal, Jacqueline Jolly.
Instead of just closing the school, the school board decided to give Principal Jolly a chance to turn the school around. Community partners and resources will be connected to the school, and Carver will become an MPS charter school in fall of 2014.
Closing failing schools is easy. Creating successful schools is difficult – but necessary.