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Are school closings the new urban renewal?

By the Notebook on Mar 4, 2013 06:37 PM

by Elaine Simon

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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Comments (36)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 4, 2013 7:46 pm
I totally agree with you. We're having a protest rally to save our schools tomorrow at 5:30 at MHall Stanton located at 2539 N 16th Street. at 5:30. Stanton is an anchor institution in am already blighted and impoverished area. The children and adults of that community deserve so much better. It's a disgrace to allow Stanton school to close and become a mammoth of despair and blight. Children deserve the right to be educated in the communities in which they live. It's unconscionable to red line certain neighborhoods and to create educational deserts. Dr. Hite and members of the SRC will be at Stanton tomorrow at 5:30 pm for a community meeting. I urge all concerned and informed citizens to join the Stanton community. These school closings impact all of us. So often in neighborhoods like Stanton the school is the only safe harbor and beacon of hope for a better future. We cannot sit back and allow the dreams and aspirations of our children to be destroyed. Rally at Stanton tomorrow at 5:30 and express your concerns to Dr. Hite and the SRC. This isn't just about those people and their children. It's about us all as a collective, as a city of neighborhoods joined in brother and sisterhood.
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on March 4, 2013 8:47 pm

You have nailed it, Elaine.   Thanks for this contribution to what will be a continuing battle.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 4, 2013 8:56 pm
Look, they are closing the schools with the lowest performance and the most dilapidated buildings. It just so happens that that the closest place for kids to go after that are also low performing and dilapidated. If they really wanted to do this right, they would let Mastery, Aspira, Esperanza, & Mosaica take over ALL receiving schools. Then they the kids WOULD be going to better schools.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 4, 2013 8:27 pm
You have got to be kidding ... or are you just being sarcastic.
Submitted by Annonym (not verified) on March 5, 2013 3:01 am
Where is your evidence? Charters are not true neighborhood schools because they do not take all students in the neighborhood. Esperanza has NO neighborhood schools. Mosaica has no track record. The spitting of a school district into "kingdoms" does not provide a equitable and fully accessible public school system. Notice this is not happening in Northeast Phila. This "experiment" is only being done in lower income areas.
Submitted by ms pat (not verified) on March 4, 2013 8:02 pm
Thank you for such an interesting and informative article. I believe that a school promotes a sense of community and ties neighborhood families and achool friends together. This historical perspective is appreciated and helps me to understand why there are so many unsightly construction stops and starts scattered throughout the city.
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Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 4, 2013 8:31 pm
Great article, Elaine. The parallels of the school closings proposals with urban renewal efforts are striking. I agree that schools serve as anchor institutions in their neighborhoods. Historically, public and parochial schools were neighborhood schools. Most neighborhoods no longer have a parochial school and increasingly, many neighborhoods will also be left without a public school/public schools. Although many charters draw children in the general vicinity of the charter school, most charter schools are not truly neighborhood schools. The District and the Commonwealth need to be INVESTING in its public, neighborhood schools, but the powers that be, whoever they are, appear to have little interest in supporting neighborhood schools in the most needy neighborhoods.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 4, 2013 9:20 pm
I would love to see this article read verbatim to the SRC this Thursday. Lisa Haver
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 4, 2013 9:44 pm
no need to read it, they know EXACTLY what they are doing
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 8, 2013 10:55 am
I would love it read to Arne Duncan on TV- there is your source and the reform backers.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 8, 2013 10:25 am
I would love it read to Arne Duncan on TV- there is your source and the reform backers.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 4, 2013 9:46 pm
Urban renewal had more point, at least. Penn got a lot of valuable land from urban renewal. In this no one really wins besides charter operators but that's only in the short term.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on March 4, 2013 10:46 pm
Thank you. We need a way to collectively grieve what is happening. The paradigm shift may be necessary as you say Elaine. Those of us committed to public education spend a great deal of time on this blog in a defensive mode because in our hearts we know there is something dreadfully wrong about the way our (albeit imperfect) system is systemically being derailed. We do not take enough time to grieve, to mourn the loss, to acknowledge that it this dismantling is the best we (i.e. our elected and appointed leaders, and we the voters) can come up with in response to the grave issues that confront our public school students, their families, our communities, and our future as Philadelphians. I am afraid the timeline for the paradigm shift will be at least a generation, if it is to come about. I feel a sense of hopelessness. This blog is simply insufficient to result in any significant change. There is cold comfort in reading comments from like minded individuals encountered in this blog when most of the people in my schools don't even read the notebook, most of the community is far from being ready to respond in any way that can produce the paradigm shift that is needed. I have researched the "reform" agenda for the better part of the last year. I have lived in Philly my whole life. I personally know many people whose perspective is in favor of "just let the sick system die". To me, that is the equivalent to saying, "Just let democracy itself die." I yearn for real conversations in which my progressive ideas don't readily dump me into a "union thug" camp. Truth be told, my views are far to the left of anything I see coming from Jerry Jordan, the PFT, or the AFT.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 4, 2013 10:50 pm
THE MEAT OF THE ARTICLE! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 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. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ School closings in Philadelphia are all about Charter school operators making money on the backs of children. It appears that Mayor Nutter is in agreement with this plan.
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on March 5, 2013 3:05 am
Agreed! No one in power wants to be responsible for public education. Taking responsibility for public education also requires addressing the grave inequity in the U.S. The "solution" is to have a disempowered work force (e.g. at will charter teachers / staff), lower wages and benefits (e.g. salaries in charters to Congress attacking entitlement programs such as Social Security), and an increasingly corporate controlled political system (e.g. Citizens United to tax policies which let Facebook Inc. get a refund in taxes versus pay any federal taxes). It may sound cliche but it is the "Walmarting of the U.S." Do we really want a country known for "I got mine / screw you?" This is the opposite of the intension of public education. (The "Walmarting" also fits with the "no-excuses" education model - if you work "hard enough" you will supposedly "succeed." More Horacio Alger mythology.)
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on March 5, 2013 10:40 am
Walmarting---Now, there's an appropriate description of what's going on. There will be either a laying down of the citizenry or an open rebellion, one or the other. This is utter abuse and all thinking people know it. Loved your post !!
Submitted by tom-104 on March 5, 2013 11:20 am
Excellent analysis! How appropriate that Obama just appointed the President of the Walmart Foundation to be director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 8, 2013 10:49 am
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 4, 2013 11:53 pm
This is a really odd comparison and completely off-base conclusion. How can you ignore the fact that the soul of urban renewal was replacing private activity and personal initiative with centrally planned government delivered services, especially housing? We tore down "slum" neighborhoods and replaced them with high-rise public housing much worse than the previous slum neighborhoods. But how is this is an endorsement of the SDP's centrally planned bureaucracy and government managed school districts again? The proper comparison is how tearing down the public housing high-rises was highly beneficial to the city as a whole and to most of the former residents. You really don't hear anyone with sense arguing we should go back to the PSD/ highrise public housing model.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 5, 2013 12:39 am
This article is completely superficial and intellectually dishonest. Argument boils down to: Urban renewal is a bad idea in history. My ideology says school choice is also bad. Therefore, I will compare the two. I could make a more valid comparison between urban renewal and reality TV. At least there, I wouldn't need to overlook unfortunate facts. This social engineering mindset that we need a large bureaucracy with complete control over the population and no accountability to implement positive change is EXACTLY WHAT URBAN RENEWAL WAS ABOUT. People/ parents don't know what they want, and even if they do they must sacrifice their self-interest for a collective good. How to acheive that will be defined by your betters, that is whatever the latest fashion in the Penn PhD circle is at the time (execution filtered several times by unions and corrupt politicians). The hillarity of this comparison is that this author most likely would have been a leading proponent of urban renewal back in the day as expressed by her desire to manipulate and conform reality around this ideology.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on March 5, 2013 8:24 am
Good comment. There is the issue also of "which came first?" the community or its public school? The health of a public school depends on the health of its community, not vice versa. The failure of external efforts at revitalization, pouring more money in Title I, or giving facelifts, as in Manayunk, gentrification as in Northern Liberties, Penn Alexander are proven already. Bring in financial independence/jobs if you want a real "renewal".
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on March 5, 2013 12:15 am
"recent studies," "countless analyst." where are they and how many. the only people effected by this preaching is the choir.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on March 5, 2013 10:19 am
Troll Alert.
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on March 5, 2013 11:53 am
the racialist fringe has spoken. what should the black folks think today, mr. joe?
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on March 5, 2013 12:59 pm
Ain't going to work--Troll Alert.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on March 5, 2013 7:24 am
Investing in neighborhoods is something we expect our elected officials to encourage through favorable zoning, tax codes, etc. And yes, a neighborhood public school should be a concern and part of a City plan. This problem took years to reach the emergency status it now is; and there were many who raised concerns (many many) years ago. (I am frankly annoyed at the the Universities, both Penn and Temple who can analyse situations quite well, but can't propose solutions other than gentrification...) The City seems only able to raise taxes, and is afraid to take chances by relieving wage and business taxes in stressed neighborhoods. The entrepreneur must deal with the BPT, GRT, and NPT, and must set aside enough capital to pay these a year in advance. No wonder mid-size and start-up firms prefer to locate outside the City. Technology has lessened the advantage that urban infrastructure can provide. Two questions: 1. Would the City be willing to borrow in order to invest in building a neighborhood resource center in existing schools, like Cincinnati? Or (and this is a decades old question) borrow (through tax relief) simply to encourage business development in declining neighborhoods? 2. Would the SDP be willing and able to restructure the method of assigning administrators and teachers (as they do with the ELL and Instrumental Music teachers) to increase utilization rather than abandoning buildings? Along this line, I think the suggestion of locating magnet programs in neighborhood schools rather than having their own building(s) is a good one. I am not happy about my child having to commute on 2 buses, and me not being able to make the Home and School meetings. You will have a battle with all the "uptight" folks at Masterman, Central, Hill Freedman, etc. on your hands however...sigh. I think "urban renewal" is the last thing on the SDP's mind right now. It is in survival mode as well. Definitely gentrification, as in Penn Alexander, is not a solution. I do not agree that local efforts to improve/cut waste in the local spending will not affect the willingness of State taxpayers to contribute more to Philadelphia. If you can improve the educational outcomes, and show less wasteful spending, you have a much better case to argue against prison over education spending.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on March 5, 2013 10:23 am
The goal is multifaceted: End Unions, End Middle Class, Keeping the poor, poor, Destroying the democratic voters in Phila., Making the inner cities wastelands and creating a Caste System of sorts and of course,always replenishing the prison system to make money. No thinking person believes any of this crap is designed to help kids, of course.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 5, 2013 12:00 pm
What I hear from you is reactionary conservatism, nostalgia for sometime, maybe back in the 1970's, that never really was. And mostly a conservative desire to preserve status-quo interests against progress. Real liberals support choice. Like Bill Gates, Eli Broad. Liberals both. They have 0 financial interest in promoting school choice. So it is about the children, and improving society. Do you really think these guys, or the nefarious "hedge fund billionaires", is going to scrounge for some skim off a chain of charter schools? Or maybe you think Gates & Broad have reviewed the SEIU contract and realize how much fat there is. All this is just a front for their new business plan. Lol. Now, no thinking person actually believes THAT kind of crap.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on March 5, 2013 12:44 pm
Actually, I agree with much of what you say, well, some of what you say. There is a pox on several houses but to somehow miss the current scam ain't good. There's lot of blame to go around here--JK
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on March 5, 2013 11:26 am
a thinking person would never conclude that there is an active movement that seeks to eliminate everyone but the very rich. i don't think the russians believed that during the bolshevik revolution. dooms day propoganda will not change the fact that you're on the downside of the lifecycle of your product. in a market-driven economy, goods and services are priced based on supply and demand. the demand for government-run public education has plummeted, mainly because of the quality of the product. while the pft organization has a lot to do with the state of public education, unionized management is a bigger problem. having teamsters running schools is an awful idea. so while the right-sizing and restructuring initiatives are needed, the situation will not get better until the district develops better leaders. until then, you will be in a continuous state of free fall.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 8, 2013 11:45 pm
You make a good point.....the district needs better leaders. Also, since the writer brought up blight and "The Black Bottom" section of West Philadelphia, I think it's important to bring up the Belmont and Family Charter schools that service that area. They seem to take your typical neighborhood school students and the kids seem to do well.....the last time I checked anyway.....
Submitted by JUDITH ROBINSON (not verified) on March 6, 2013 12:35 am
Gentrification by shut down of public educational institutions in North PHILLY...
Submitted by Samuel Reed III on March 6, 2013 4:06 pm

Schools as Ecosystems

Mark Anderson, an educator and blogger friend of mine from New York, writes extensively about school reform on his blog Schools as Ecosystems. I have always been impressed with Mark's insightful thinking about the complexities of school reform. But it is only now that I really appreciate his metaphor of schools as ecosystems. 

As I contemplate the devastation that will ensue with closing so many neighborhood schools in Philadelphia, I wonder if School District's officials are using an ecological lens to decide how many and which schools should be ultimately closed.

Is the plan in Philadelphia, as in other urban centers across America, to starve public schools of funding? Or is the plan to give our schools and communities the resources needed to make all schools "great schools"?

Will the ripple effects of school closing, crumble certain neighborhoods while gentrifying others?

The SRC has some important decisions to make this week. The decision made for one school community will have long-lasting effects.

Close one school down, and what impact will it have on the property values of homes and businesses? Will closed schools be repurposed as apartments, charter schools or will they sit vacant?

These tough conversations should be made transparent before any closing plans are voted upon.

Schools as ecosystems or school closings as the new urban renewal…I think both Elaine and my friend Mark in New York are on to something really big. 

Sam Reed

@sriii2000 @tagphilly

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