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March 04, 2014 10:25 AM School Closings: A Solution in Need of a Solution

By Andre Perry

Closing schools has become an almost reflexive, corporate solution to a complex fiscal and social problem - a problem to which no one has found a satisfying answer.

Districts shutter, sell or destroy physical properties typically for said fiscal reasons. Districts also terminate contracts of poor-performing service providers to make way for new leaders who most often radically rearrange the organs of a school - making it in essence a new school. In either case for students, alum and family members, closing a school can feel like excommunicating a grandfather to the wilderness to save money.

In Michigan, the Saginaw School District must fill a $32.6 million hole by the 2015-2016 school year. Alumni’s tears soaked the plan to close their beloved Saginaw High. The subsequent community pressure stopped the vote to close “Sag High,” and the district found other cost-cutting measures to keep open two schools that it had planned to close. Political pressure forced this district to open their eyes to other possibilities and solutions.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, taking a school offline is more often about ushering out a poor-performing educational service provider of a charter school due to stunted academic growth. The Recovery School District (RSD) recently closed much-publicized John McDonogh High School. The Oprah Television Network dubiously featured “John Mac” in the mini-series Blackboard Wars in what was hoped to narrate an arc of improvement.  Instead, within two years the RSD revoked the charter agreement from its provider, Future Is Now, and its CEO Steve Barr, amid poor performance, declining enrollments, large deficits and a media tragedy. Blackboard Wars stopped filming before graduation.

Times Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry wrote an emblematic letter that captures one of the reasons why district leaders need better solutions. DeBerry opens his letter with, “It is with heavy hearts that we, the residents of New Orleans, write you this letter informing you that we find it impossible to educate you. We’re giving up on our stated goal of preparing you for a future that requires your literacy, your facility with numbers and critical thinking skills. You have our regrets.” This quote reveals the hidden curriculum of school closing.

But grief is not the only tradeoff in need of a solution. Closing schools doesn’t always cure multifaceted financial problems. Let’s be clear, shuttering is about cutting expenses i.e., letting go teachers. Releasing teachers can be a convenient and nefarious way to close a financial gap. Nevertheless, we do need to rethink how the vestiges of segregation, busing, as well as the school-choice agenda led to attendance-zone planning with the efficiency rating of a bowl of spaghetti. We very well may have more campuses than needed, but across-the-board cutting ignores poor planning, bad policy and mismanagement, which often times remain with the district. In addition, closing a school due to academic failure doesn’t guarantee its students will end up in a better school.

Taking schools offline can be incredibly shortsighted for communities that need reinvestment. Schools are cultural assets that drive neighborhood economies. Closing a school can bury history while bankrupting a nearby gas station. Shuttering removes meeting and recreational space especially for vulnerable populations. No one really wins when a school closes prematurely.

Many urban districts will realize population growth. By 2050, most of the world’s population will live in urban areas. Improving public school districts are presenting strong cases to parents of faith based and private schools to come back to the public sector. As schools improve and cities grow, district leaders should explicitly seek to add revenue by recruiting private and faith-based families. Tuition has mirrored the rising cost of education, and no one wants to pay twice for education.

Consequently, more and more families are following their tax dollars but are also demanding better public options. Districts in growing metropolitan areas should do everything to keep schools open while improving them. If leaders leave little academic and physical room for growth, then recruitment becomes difficult. School closing is a solution in need of a solution. But what alternatives exist for districts?

Colleges of education should physically and literally be part of the solution. Schools and universities must partner in ways to maximize their economic and social benefits with the explicit goal of sustaining and growing neighborhoods. I always remind people that the goal of school reform is not simply to close an achievement gap. We should find ways to support students and reform schools and maintain community assets.

The newfound space in schools allows for meaningful co-locations and partnerships.  Universities can slow their penchant to grow their footprint and raise tuition by utilizing the real life, learning laboratory available in their backyards. Schools - not university campuses - provide the best training ground for future teachers. By giving students “on the job” learning experiences, students can determine if teaching is a viable career choice. Likewise, the principal and district also can see the talent they would want to hire.

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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