In 1997, Jonathan Levin, the son of former Time Warner Chair Jerry Levin and a dedicated high school teacher in the South Bronx, was murdered in his home by one of his students. The apparent motivation was robbery.
Levin’s murder sent shock waves throughout New York City and its public schools. In honor of Levin’s memory, a new high school was founded five years later; the Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications was opened in the same building where the slain teacher had taught.
Nearly a million dollars in scholarship money poured in, a ball field was built, and computers were donated. It was a fitting tribute to what the New York City Department of Education called the young teacher’s “spirit, values, commitment, and impassioned belief” that every child has a right to a quality education.
Levin High School was a symbol of success. Early on, its graduation rate approached 90 percent and elite colleges accepted many of its graduates.
But a decade later the school has fallen on hard times. The graduation rate has dropped to 31 percent, the fifth lowest in the city. Enrollment declined from 484 in 2007 to 339 this year. And half of the school’s students have said they do not always feel safe.
The New York City Department of Education has also given Levin High School poor marks. The school received a D overall on the 2011-2012 annual progress report. It fared even worse on individual assessments of student performance and college readiness.
Predictably, Levin High School is on the verge of closure. The city’s school oversight board will vote later this month, despite impassioned pleas from students and parents to keep the school open and arguments from civil rights groups who say Levin High School’s closing (among many other school closings) will disproportionately affect poor students of color.
The anticipated closing of Levin High School puts the issue of school governance squarely in the policy crosshairs. School closures that look rational on paper become messy in the real world.
People identify with their schools, for better or for worse. Schools are more than the sum of their test scores and graduation rates. Poor communities rely on schools to be safe havens for their children.
The sad truth, however, is that schools in a declining tailspin, such as Levin High School, are almost never able to solve the problems they face without a massive overhaul.
Organizational cultures don’t change overnight; they are bone deep. It is difficult to prove a negative and, therefore, we don’t know for certain if Levin High School could accomplish a dramatic turn around, but the odds are against it.
Perhaps we need a new paradigm for opening schools. Before opening any school, they should be required to demonstrate a solid academic and financial foundation. The test of any organization is its strength over time, and while the numbers don’t always tell the story, they don’t lie either.
We need to create schools that perform every year. That would be a tribute to Jonathan Levin that would stand the test of time.
Photo Credit: Richard Perry/The New York Times