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Voices: A call for conversation around closing schools

Veteran educator turned consultant Peter Huidekoper, Jr., lays out his thoughts around the pros and cons of closing schools, and calls for more conversation.

Those of us who can sound high and mighty about the need for the closure of low-performing schools often appear deaf to the response of the community in and around these troubled schools. It is critical we stay attentive to all the factors that make a school closure hard and painful.

I try here to capture a few of these factors and concerns; by sharing this on EdNews, I hope to hear other comments that will shed more light on this issue.

I am one of those who believes that after giving a chronically low-performing school sufficient time and support, when the results stay—tragically, stubbornly—much the same, we serve students best by closing the schools while simultaneously making sure they have a better alternative for the following school year. I am not alone; this belief is supported, at least as I understand it, by the bipartisan Senate Bill 163 of 2009 on Accountability, which has begun to put dozens of schools on notice that the state could take “dramatic intervention” by 2015 or so, and one of those steps could call for closure.

Many of us also realize it is a controversial idea. We know that closing schools has been and likely will be mishandled at times (after all, “to err is human”), whether in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C.—or Denver (see Manual High). Stories in Education Week (“Protesters Decry School Closings in Nation’s Cities,” 2/6/13, and “Study: Cities Face Growing Stock of Shuttered Schools,” 2/20/13) raise important questions about civil rights and closures that “disproportionately” affect poor and minority students. That latter article stated that a study by Pew Charitable Trusts “says the impact of large-scale public school closures reverberate for years after the buildings themselves are shut down.”

Let me be clear, though, about a critical distinction: my focus here is about closing schools for academic reasons or charters for financial or operational failures. That’s quite a different matter from shutting down a school due to low enrollment and thereby creating a vacant building. Closure as I discuss it here is not about leaving the building empty.

Many of us are eager to better understand how closing a chronically low-performing school is perceived. What are the legitimate reasons folks of good-will — who want the best for the students – might insist there is another way than closure? We know we have much to learn if we are to make good decisions about our lowest-performing schools.

So here’s a rough draft, capturing some of the concerns. I hope several of you will improve on it.

  • That it hurts parents to be told the school where they send their child is so bad it should be closed, as if parents are somehow to blame for making a poor choice in sending their child to this school. That it can feel like a slap in the face, as if the parents purchased a defective toy or ill-fitting clothes — and didn’t care about letting their son or daughter down.
  • That it hurts those administrators, teachers, and staff who are keenly aware of the challenges their students face and who give so much of themselves to meet their students’ needs, to then be told the school is performing so poorly it should be closed. That it hurts to invest so much of yourself in a place and then be told: not good enough.
  • That it hurts the community around the school who know the men and women who work hard in that building, who have earned so much trust and respect over the years, who are now being told the job they do is unsatisfactory, and that the school they have committed themselves to will no longer be allowed to operate—at least not in its current form, not with its current leadership and faculty.
  • That it becomes personal when folks in the community have friends and family working in that school, have personal ties to those who will lose their jobs — those who, members of the community insist, try every day to do their best by the kids.
  • That it angers a community to feel the decision is made by those with little understanding of the context: the issues of poverty, race, immigration, the number of English language learners, etc., often significant factors in the school’s low-performance.
  • That it can feel like one more example of robbing a low-income community of its voice in local affairs, another case of “downtown” or “those people” imposing on the wishes of the families who live and work in that neighborhood.
  • That it can seem small-minded of those in authority to use test scores as a key factor in the decision on closure. That even when the district or state use comprehensive evaluation tools, such as Denver’s Strategic Schools Support Framework, which includes a look at leadership, community support, school climate, community support, and provides for school visits by a team of educators which allows real people to look at the intangibles–in spite of all that, that even such a “broad picture” is mistrusted because somewhere in that long list of metrics is the only one the community believes will really matter: test scores.
  • That it can confuse parents who hear so much talk about the importance of “parent choice,” and then they’re told that they are wrong (or worse) to choose to send their child to a low-performing school, especially one where the men and women in the building are so caring and respectful. For some parents, that is almost enough to make them want to rally behind the school and keep it alive—whatever the test scores. But now they’re told this can’t be an option anymore. Where’s the “parent choice” in that?
  • That it angers parents and a community to feel closure is on the table when other quality choices for their kids are not available (again, see Manual) — or require a dangerous walk to and from that “better” school.
  • That when your school is put “on the clock” (SB 163), or to be more bloody about it, is said to be headed for “the chopping block,” it can damage morale enough to send the school on a downward spiral; it can lead the staff to feel the obstacles to proving sufficient progress over the next year or two are overwhelming, to feel that the district or state is eager to shut it down regardless of any slight improvement it can make…. Thus almost making the “warning” about possible closure a self-fulfilling prophecy: as soon as you tell us we’re a chronically low-performing school, we’ll prove it again this coming year. And how. (See the phase out of Montbello or Rachel Noel).

I am sure I have missed much. Your corrections and additions are welcome.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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