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School closings: Top 5 issues

by Helen Gym on Oct 27 2010

Over the past few weeks, the School District has been holding focus group sessions on a “facilities master plan” – aka, for the rest of us, a school closing plan – and folks, believe me, based on where the District is going, your opinions need to be heard.

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.

Last week I attended an information session for a facilities master plan, conducted by OMG Center for Collaborative Learning, which has a $43,000 contract to run 20 such sessions. OMG’s contract stipulates it will hold separate meetings for parents, elected officials, advocacy groups, community development organizations, and charter school operators. Principals, teachers, and staff are notably not identified in the resolution authorizing OMG’s contract.

The dialogue was structured around these questions:

  • From your perspective, what are the three most important elements of a high-quality, school-choice option in Philadelphia?
  • In your opinion, what are the three most important criteria to consider when determining if a particular school should close?
  • What is your reaction to what you have heard up to this point about how the District is approaching the development of the master facilities plan?
  • What information should the District present to your constituents in order to make the case for any decision reached regarding the facilities master plan, and how?
  • What recommendations would you make to the District around how it communicates its decisions to the broader community?

The questions naturally raised alarm bells – not the least of which because it sounded like the District was asking for advice on informing communities about decisions it had already made. The dialogue around our table was fortunately dynamic and well informed. There was deep concern and even distrust of the District’s motivations and capacity, based on past experience in this arena.

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 as the result of school closings don’t have to be.

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Comments (14)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 10/27/2010 - 23:12.

All I can say is Wow, guess where most of the schools slated to be closed will be, yup in the inner city, kids will have to cross neighborhood boundaries to attend new schools, look at Lewis Middle School closing result, poor chaos at Roosevelt and Pastorious which both had to begin accepting children from Lewis middle school.

Submitted by Mrs. G (not verified) on Sun, 10/31/2010 - 19:50.

I was at Lewis the year it closed. We had a strong, fair principal, a great teaching team, and the students were showing progress. The climate of the school was 1000 times better than when I started at the school and, in the last year, we made AYP. Yet, our hard work and dilligence did nothing to stop the closing of the school.

Submitted by Helen Gym on Mon, 11/01/2010 - 10:21.

Those are exactly the kind of questions which need to be considered.

Submitted by In the Trenches (not verified) on Thu, 10/28/2010 - 14:53.

When we got dumped on the empowerment list and had not met the criteria, we began speculating about this possibility for us. Our enrollment is down from past years and seems to be still shrinking. The saddest part is that this is part of a cycle. It has dropped before and swung back around. The building is in good repair and is beautiful to look at. It greatly saddens me to think that all the work done here will not even be a memory when they do this to us.

Submitted by Larry Feinberg (not verified) on Fri, 10/29/2010 - 06:33.

New York Times
In Sharp Rise, 47 City Schools May Close Over Performance
By SHARON OTTERMAN
Published: October 28, 2010
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/29/nyregion/29closings.html?ref=education

"The schools face a potential “phase-out,” a process in which the school stops accepting students and loses one grade per year until it ceases to exist. Simultaneously, new schools open in the building. "

"To reduce the shock and anger that closing announcements met in past years, the city has a new process to explain its thinking before making a final decision. At least four meetings are being held at each school, and parents and staff and community members can object if they feel that part or all of the school should be preserved, officials said. "

Submitted by Helen Gym on Fri, 10/29/2010 - 22:21.

Thanks for posting this.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 10/31/2010 - 07:47.

Helen, you're the best!
Could not the closings due to waning enrollment have been foreseen with the approval and creation of so many charter schools? Doesn't one foreshadow the other? Why not "just" transfer the properties to the charter schools?

I would support the closing of schools with a clear trend of attrition, and achievement no better than the large schools. This was supposed to be an intended and healthy consequence of poor management. It would seem to be even more necessary as Title I is unable to enforce any consequences.

Again the administrators of both the traditional and charter schools stand more to gain than lose from all this "churning". The sincere teachers and the taxpayer are footing the bill.

Submitted by Helen Gym on Mon, 11/01/2010 - 10:20.

Re: the closing of schools: The District has lost arguably as much as a quarter of its population over the last 15 years, so I would guess that many schools have declining populations. One question is whether we will adjust unreasonable class size maximums (33 in K-3 and 30 in grades 4 and up) so that we assess populations not as declining but reaching an appropriately manageable state. We may want to look at distribution of the schools where decline is clearly coupled with poor achievement AND poor leadership/management. It makes a difference for example, if we see whole sections of the city loaded down with a number of these types of schools. If we shut them all down on those bases, then what about the communities which rely on these schools as anchor institutions? Wouldn't it be better to stratgically invest in these schools, depending on whether there were leadership changes or facilities or an engaged community and parent constituency?

I also think we really want to push the question of public land and the transfer into private hands. We have a highly politicized School Reform Commission with little sense of public accountability and a budget shortfall. We need to push for a large public process so that political operators don't get to run rampant over vulnerable communities in a free-for-all.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 11/01/2010 - 19:14.

I'm cynical enough to think part of Ackerman and Co.'s motivation is to "dump" the lowest performing schools so they no longer "count against" the SDP. Getting rid of Smedley, for example, put the challenge of a very challenging school in the hands of Mastery versus Ackerman. Ackerman's spin doctors will claim "improvements" while, in reality, she just "dumped" the most problematic schools.

I also am concerned about public property being transferred to private institutions / individuals. Do the charter operators, such as Mastery, own the school buildings or are they still public? (I realize until this year, charter schools have had to rent/purchase their buildings.) I also don't think it is a coincidence that the schools which were "charterized" this year are not newer buildings. The newer buildings (Clemente, Univ. City, soon to be West, Potter Thomas, etc.) became "promise academies" while very old buildings like Smedley became charters. Nevertheless, the school is often an important institution in a community with few other public spaces.

Submitted by Erika Owens on Tue, 11/02/2010 - 11:02.

The idea of getting rid of lowest performing schools is one of the things that jumped out at me in today's Daily News op-ed. "In her short tenure, besides starting to rid the district of its poorest-performing schools, she's terminated poor public- and charter-school operators, significantly increased graduation rates and the number of children meeting state standards in reading and math."

I'm just not sure what to make of that, especially given that one of the op-ed authors' company is managing one of those excised low performing schools! Maybe "rid" in this case means "work on and improve," which in fact, is what Ackerman is taking responsibility for with Promise Academies, but the language still caused me pause.

Submitted by just wondering (not verified) on Wed, 12/01/2010 - 12:28.

"I'm cynical enough to think part of Ackerman and Co.'s motivation is to "dump" the lowest performing schools so they no longer "count against" the SDP."

Maybe so, but with recent folding of schools into other, higher performing school (Childs into Barratt) wouldnt there be concern that a high performing school would loose progress by gaining a large number of students from a lower performing school? Just wondering.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 11/01/2010 - 21:29.

I fundamentally agree it is better to fix than close. I make the comment in favor of closure only because otherwise the seriousness of a school's failure doesn't seem to register. Title I mandates reorganization NOT closure. Interesting isn't it? It seems the District for some reason is unable to reorganize a school. I would not trust them for any fair or accurate studies of management, attrition, achievement. It is too politically charged to be handled locally.

Closure does indeed support/open the door to the "use of public funds for private gain". This theme shows up time and again in the District's actions, explaining the otherwise inexplicable. By right, public school property belongs to the neighborhood for the purposes of educating their children. We must not forget this.

Charter schools receive public funds to operate, why can't this include subsidies to rent buildings of former schools that are otherwise in good shape? Ref. comment on procedure for closure from NY Times above.

I can understand the flight to charter schools. I was unable to get teachers in my District school to submit even "fill in the form" grant applications while the charter schools have already done this and more. I find that the charter schools are using their Title I funds as directed, to bring their children to the Theater to be enriched, while my school's Title I funds go to an Instructional Reform Facilitator who spends a lot of time sabotaging the other teachers' ideas, rather than supporting them, and who wrote our "cut and paste" SIP. The professional development that she's responsible for is uncritiqued. Her main function is to make the principal look good to his District supervisors. It's a laugh that as a parent I'm supposed to be able to hold her or him accountable. Waning enrollment does not affect his salary, while proliferation of individual schools simply increases the demand for principals. Charter schools seem to be the closest though imperfect alternative to reorganization.

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on Mon, 11/29/2010 - 19:22.

 Anyone else going to be at CAPA tomorrow evening for round 4 of the facilities master plan community meeting?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 12/11/2010 - 00:19.

which other schools besides Smedley?

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