School closings: Top 5 issues

(Cross-posted at the Public School Notebook)

Yesterday the District publicly unveiled its proposal for a facilities master plan – aka, for the rest of us, a school closing plan – and based on where the District is going, major issues are already coming to the forefront.

Let’s face it: the District has done a miserable job about school closings in the past. School closings are always going to be painful, yes, but the District’s last-minute timing, failure to give communities options and benefits, and refusal to share information have turned troubling situations into traumatic ones – and unnecessarily so.

Among the things discussed yesterday was the bombshell that some (unnamed) schools may close before September – even though the transfer process is now closed, most private school admissions have closed, and charter school lotteries are being held in a few months. In other words, parents at the shuttered schools are likely to have been shut out of most school choice options.

In 2009 the District passed a land management policy, which claims to use “fair market value” to determine whether to sell, transfer, or lease. But a piecemeal sales approach with the only consideration being an apparently subjective interpretation of "fair market value" leaves out a responsible understanding of how precious public land needs to be put to use for the public benefit. By that measure, it would make more sense to shut down Greenfield Elementary in up-market Center City than two or even three schools elsewhere.

Moreover, the policy hasn’t led to more public engagement or analysis of the issue. The District still has failed to articulate a framework and understanding of its current land uses and needs, as well as its future goals for development. School communities continue to raise concerns about why repairs don’t happen or why the District would rather give away land than allow school communities to use it for educational purposes. It doesn’t even publicly disclose all the parcels that it does own – an obvious starting point for dialogue.

These five issues emerged for me as the most important ones for the SRC to consider around its facilities master plan:

  1. Public schools are public resources
    A school closing doesn’t have to mean a school sale. The District is one of the city’s largest holders of public land, often in places where communities lack access to resources or community space. The District must make strategic use of land from a long-term perspective – 10, 20, or 50 years – that balances its needs with larger community and social needs. Land banking, long-term leasing to cover costs, creating a land trust for a performing arts space or a state-of-the-art science and demonstration laboratory for high schoolers – these are preferable to dumping precious land, especially in one of the worst real estate markets of the past quarter century.
  2. Engage the public in a formal process
    Though the District is reluctant to state the number of schools it wants to close, by all accounts, the District could be overseeing one of the largest transitions of public property into non-public hands: 12, 15, or 20 schools or more. The District makes a big mistake if it thinks that 20 feedback sessions (each representing relatively narrow special interests) counts as any sort of significant and responsible public input. The District must develop a public engagement strategy and process that brings all communities together across the city in an establishment of principles, mission and procedure around land management before it moves any further.
  3. Criteria matter
    In the past, the District has cited poor facilities or under-enrollment as the primary reasons to close schools. However in this era of school turnarounds, a third possibility has loomed: school “performance.” But as the District looks to close down a large number of schools, it needs to think broader than these narrow criteria. We have schools performing well that are small. In a system where we haven’t made a commitment to meaningful class size limits, does it make sense to target schools due to low enrollment if they meet their academic goals? Does it make sense to judge on test scores? On that basis we could close a whole set of schools in a particular neighborhood, or close down a recently renovated building. A mix of criteria, from school performance to neighborhood needs, must be weighed in any decision.
  4. Don’t rush it
    Poor timing is one of the primary reasons school closings fail so horribly in the public arena. School closings must incorporate a 2-3 year transition process to give time for parents and families to seek viable options. Middle grades students should be allowed to finish K-8 schools rather than transferring during critical academic and socially vulnerable years. Parents need plenty of time to go through a school selection process that begins in October so they’re not shut out of charter school lotteries, magnet school admissions, or even private and parochial options. The timetable also needs to be in sync with the teacher and principal transfer process. It’s troubling that the District’s own “School Closing Protocol” apparently recommends informing staff in the spring about how to handle a June school closing – far too late for any staff member who wants to be treated respectfully.
  5. Make sure there’s a “win”
    Former District Chief Tom Brady, in observing the disastrous process of the Ada B. Lewis closing, pointedly declared that school communities must be offered benefits in a school closing process. Something positive must be gained from that school’s closure, whether it’s a new community learning center or a new public playground. It's simply unacceptable that they are seen as the "losers" in an often arbitrary, political, and secretive process.

School closings may be inevitable, but school chaos and the public’s loss don’t have to be.

Thanks Helen

Great stuff. As always.

Buckle Up

The real mission of the School Reform Commission in my opinion, has been to dismantle public schools. Let us remember this plan was designed by Tom Ridge, a Republican Governor who came within one vote in the legislature of replacing public schools with a voucher system.
No doubt, Corbett will be trying to succeed where Ridge failed. Their plan will be to grow revenue by selling off property, and save money by closing down schools.
For people who know educational history, it was the emphasis on Return on Investment (ROI), that changed the best educational system in the world, into the dysfunctional system our future is suffering through.
Rather than learn from mistakes, our leadership seeks to enhance them.
Throughout history we have seen nations without a middle class fail. Our elected leaders are sadly, not historians. Buckle Up everybody.

Closing schools

Closing schools is never a good thing. I don't know why governments seem to think that it is. It just means that students are going to be in even more over-crowded classrooms and because of this their education will suffer.

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