Opinion: A fresh start for the SRC? Part II
by Helen Gym on Nov 02 2011 Posted in Commentary
For starter's, today's FMP meeting showcases the strange approach the District has to starting difficult conversations – surprise the public.
For months the District has remained mum on a secret list of school closings.
A confidential document the Notebook published this past summer revealed the District had identified more than two dozen schools for potential closings and consolidations – even though they had previously refused to name specific schools. District and city officials chided the Notebook for publishing the document, but since then no further conversation has taken place other than to reiterate the drumbeat that “rightsizing” has to happen.
In the meantime, school communities all across the city have operated in a state of alarm for weeks.
This past weekend, I accompanied a busload of immigrant students from the South Philadelphia area to a bullying prevention summit for Asian American communities in New York City. On the bus ride, a major topic of concern among the students was the possibility of Furness High School’s closure and a potential consolidation into South Philadelphia High School.
As difficult and confusing as it is for U.S.-born English speakers to process what’s going on, imagine the confusion and lack of communication to immigrant youth and families who were kept in the dark about an issue that has deep resonance for them. One student victim of racial violence which enveloped South Philadelphia High School in 2009 transferred out of that school to attend Furness only to hear through rumors and speculation that he might be forced back to Southern.
In the past month, I have received two inquiries from Furness students asking me if they should put in a transfer because of their school’s potential closure. The deadline for students to request a transfer was last Friday.
It’s my hope that today’s meeting will show that the SRC and District have learned some lessons. What am I looking for today?
A process for meaningful community input
The District and SRC must recognize that they may not have all the information necessary to make final decisions on things like school closures. It's important that they hear from communities that can articulate the impact of school closings as well as identify potential hazards and solutions the District may not have considered. Too often, though, the public reaction around school closings is dismissed as generic NIMBY “pain” and “outrage” rather than meaningful input. The public needs to see a plan – beyond public testimony – where the District solicits and prioritizes community input.
A recent study on school closings around the country showed that many of the reasons listed for closing schools – financial and academic – don’t bear out as much as school officials think. The catch-phrase “rightsizing” (judging schools by their enrollment capacity) has also entered the edu-speak lexicon. I don’t know a single educator who judges a school by its enrollment capacity. We need the District to show it is making decisions based on a mix of criteria and to make those criteria public and transparent.
Make sure there's a win
At the end of the day, the District has to be able to look into a parent's eye and say that the educational life of their child will improve. The District must ensure that the schools students are reassigned to are better than the ones they attend. In a city of neighborhoods, they have to be conscientious about safe passage to and from school as well as in school. It’s worth repeating what I wrote about school closings last year – school communities must be provided viable options and see a gain from their school’s potential closure. It's simply unacceptable that they are seen as "losers" in what's too often been an arbitrary, political, and secretive process.
No more surprises
This afternoon’s unveiling – whether or not schools are slated for closure – has already caused enough stress and potential consequences for students and school communities. I expect that school communities will have an opportunity to phase out graduating students, that feeder patterns and quality options will be made available to families, and that intensive communication in multiple languages will happen with staff, families and students to maximize their input and ease them through the process.