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Are school closings the new urban renewal?

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by Elaine Simon

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Recent analyses show that most students from schools recommended for closing in Philadelphia would not end up in better-performing schools. They are likely to wind up in schools much like the ones they were in before, as a recent study by Research for Action shows.

Most of the displaced students will not benefit academically from the closings as planned. In addition, they would have to travel a distance outside their neighborhoods, because the closings would create education deserts in areas of the city with the highest concentration of minority and low-income residents. 

Disturbingly, this scenario echoes the urban renewal of the mid-20th century. Just as urban renewal decimated neighborhoods and dispersed the mostly poor and minority residents without benefiting them, the school-closings agenda of the current wave of school reform probably will lead to the same outcomes.

Countless analysts have deemed urban renewal wrong-headed and unfair. Although its architects predicted that tearing down housing in poor neighborhoods would lead to revitalization through private investment, rarely did that occur. When a neighborhood rose again, it took decades, with the improvements usually not benefiting the original residents. Scholars and professional planners generally agree that urban renewal was a misguided policy that, rather than revitalizing neighborhoods, doomed them to long-term decline.

What were people thinking back then? Going back to the origins of urban renewal, neighborhoods were labeled “blighted,” community life "disorganized." These were places that mostly housed the poor, immigrants, and minorities. The buildings were in need of repair. With their proximity to downtown areas, municipal power brokers considered them to be ruining the city’s image. Of course, these neighborhoods were places that no one had invested in for decades. Banks would not make loans in areas marked with red lines on a map according to race and ethnicity. This long-term disinvestment led to the deterioration of buildings and the seeming decline of community life.

The buildings and their inhabitants were, in a sense, victims of others’ interests and actions. The poor and the minority groups who had resided in these spaces had to find housing they could afford, housing that was often more distant from kin and friends, and often less desirable than where they came from. They didn’t move to better neighborhoods, and often found their situations worse in terms of social support.

In the meantime, the old neighborhoods and the housing that survived declined further. Neighborhood assets, like churches, stores, and parks that had been important community centers for generations, became abandoned or disappeared. Without these assets, why would anyone have chosen to move in or stay if they could leave? So the neighborhoods emptied out, either from the wrecking ball or from defection.

Schools are often the one institution still surviving in low-income neighborhoods, and they serve as a point of pride and community for families. Are schools important to their neighborhoods? Ask the more than 4,000 people who attended community meetings on school closings over the last few months. Nonetheless, the new “education reformers” prioritize closing schools over improving them, using the argument that we are in a time of public sector austerity, which means a need to orient to market forces.

Just as planners labeled urban renewal neighborhoods as blighted, education officials justify closing schools with labels like failing, decrepit, and underutilized, based on statistics analyzed at a distance.

Education officials and the politicians and elites that influence them are wrongly judging and wrongly displacing students and communities that are slated to lose their schools. As the architects of urban renewal did, they are blaming the victims of long-standing neglect, failed policies, and lack of will to serve the students most in need.

Proponents of this reform say that public school enrollment is decreasing because people are “voting with their feet.”  Is that what the residents of West Philadelphia’s Black Bottom did when the Redevelopment Authority declared their neighborhood blighted in the late 50s, condemned and tore down their houses, destroyed their institutions and their communities? After the long-term neglect of their schools, parents are hardly voting -- they are merely in survival mode.

Just as neighborhoods targeted for renewal collapsed when key institutions disappeared, the School District of Philadelphia's closings plan - affecting majority Black and low-income neighborhoods – threatens to deal them a death blow. When a neighborhood loses its schools, it also loses an institution that builds relationships among local residents and binds generations, while it serves local children. Losing schools makes it all the more likely that these neighborhoods will deteriorate further.

Who would stay or move into a neighborhood that doesn’t even have a school in which parents and community members can invest their energies? Granted, not all these schools slated for closure have strong neighborhood and parent engagement. Nurturing that involvement authentically is a paradigm shift that public schools have to make if they are going to improve.

School closings are happening in urban landscapes across America, and Philadelphia is one of the most vivid examples. After years of neglect and disinvestment in public education, elected and policy officials -- with business elites at every level leading behind the scenes -- plan to replace these public schools with charter schools. But charter schools deflect responsibility and accountability by fragmenting the system, shattering it into too many pieces for the public to keep track of. They are not the city’s responsibility. Their performance is not as transparent, and they do not have to take all students.

Looking back, historians lament the devastating impact of urban renewal on low-income, largely minority communities and on those displaced. History is repeating itself in the process in the pattern of school closings taking place in other cities and about to take place in Philadelphia. These policies are assuring that there will be no institution left behind in minority neighborhoods, particularly institutions that we can hold accountable for serving all students and that can bind neighbors.

Let’s hope that future urban historians will not look back at the current school-closing agenda as having been one more contribution to urban decline and displacement.   


Elaine Simon is co-director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. She has studied and written about Philadelphia school reform for almost three decades and for the last six years taught a project-based learning course, "Schools and Community Development,"  in collaboration with teachers in West Philadelphia high schools. 


The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the author.

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