Expert advice on school closings: Offer something better
The first lesson about school closings is simple: People get mad.
More than three years after the Ada Lewis Middle School closed its doors, Arenda Bethel still is impassioned about it.
"We proved that some of the information that [the District] gave was not true," said Bethel, a Germantown resident who spearheaded the campaign to keep her son’s school open.
"If you haven’t really experienced [a closure], and seen how it changes the makeup of your community, you don’t understand."
It was early 2007 when District officials first proposed the Ada Lewis closure, based on low enrollment and an estimated $38 million repair bill. Bethel believed fervently that the school was worth saving. She and her supporters became a fixture at School Reform Commission meetings, contesting everything from the District’s public notification process – far too cursory, they said – to its high repair estimates.
"We had two engineers there for three and a half hours," recalled Lewis Harris, a community activist who organized a team of contractors to inspect the school. "From the roof to the floors, everywhere."
But District officials stood by their estimates and argued that another neighborhood school had room for Ada Lewis students. In June 2007, the SRC voted unanimously for closure.
To this day, Bethel and her supporters think they never had a chance.
"We believe that arrangements were already made to close the building, and nothing parents had to say was taken seriously," said Venard Johnson, a longtime education activist.
Ada Lewis now sits empty. District officials say they have no plans for it yet. Bethel said she calls regularly to complain about weeds, trash, and vagrants.
And when she considers the District’s new facilities master plan, Bethel fears that other parents will soon share her experience.
"They’re still doing the same thing," Bethel said. "They’re trying to make it look like they’re including us, but they really aren’t."
District: Nothing’s predetermined
District officials say fears like Bethel’s are understandable, but unfounded. They say there is no secret list of schools slated for closure.
"Everybody always thinks we have a list," said Deputy for Strategic Initiatives Danielle Floyd. "I don’t have a list."
They won’t even say that closings are guaranteed, despite an estimated 70,000 surplus seats. "I don’t know if [closures are] inevitable, but it’s possible," said Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery. "You’re going to have ranges of things to do: closure, consolidation, renovation."
But Floyd and Nunery also say that the Ada Lewis experience shows that the District must do a better job of communicating with parents and making its case for changes.
"One of the things we did learn when we did our homework is, if you’re going to close something, or change what’s there, you have to offer something better," said Nunery. "We keep that right in front of us."
Tom Brady, who served as Philadelphia’s interim superintendent when Ada Lewis was closed, says that’s the right place to start.
"As soon as you decide to close a school, it becomes the best school in the world," said Brady, who has been part of closures in Virginia, Washington D.C., and Providence, R.I., where he is now superintendent. "Parents, graduates, and grandparents will rally. No matter what estimates you come up with, there will be experts who will come in and refute you. That’s part of the deal.
"So what we learned from six months of meetings every night [in D.C.] is, you have to create a better scenario for kids," said Brady. "You have to say, ‘We’re going to close School A, and School B will have the following academic improvements – more teachers, more art, more PE.’ People aren’t going to throw roses, but reasonable parents, if you explain in graphic terms how the improvement’s going to benefit them, they’ll come around."
Brady says there was no predetermined fate for Ada Lewis, and that District officials gave an honest and accurate accounting of the school’s condition. "It wasn’t a done deal," he said. "Like all closures, it was very controversial, but I believe there were enough facts on the table."
But that, Brady says, highlights another important lesson: When it comes to a community asset like a school, facts alone are not enough. He cites an experience in Fairfax County, Va., early in his career. "I had all the facts, I had all the engineers giving me reports – and I didn’t have a clue of the political landscape," Brady said. "I got killed. They hired engineers to prove that my facts were wrong.
"That was my introduction to this business, and it was very painful, but very clear: Facts in and of themselves don’t win the day," Brady said. "It has to be a full and transparent engagement."
Rights are at stake
Mary Filardo, head of the 21st Century School Fund in Washington, says anti-closing sentiment must be taken seriously. After being involved with closures in D.C. and Chicago, she’s learned that the roots of opposition run deep.
"These issues around closings, charters, and transformations are as charged as Brown vs. Board of Education," said Filardo. "It is the same issue – where do you have the right to go to school? If they turn a school in your neighborhood into a charter school, is your right to enter a lottery the same as your right to walk to the front door and say, ‘I want my child to go here’?
"[Some] people are dismissing the opposition, saying, ‘Oh, they just don’t want their schools closed.’ But really, they don’t want their rights abridged."
Layered on top of that, Filardo says, are practical questions that districts must handle forthrightly: Is my child’s new school better? Is it accessible? Can my child get there safely? These are no small matters.
"In Chicago, they really put kids in harm’s way, in terms of their travel [to new schools]," said Filardo. "There was one case where a kid was killed walking through gang territory."
Finally, Filardo says districts must be prepared to address questions of corruption. Wherever she goes, she says, people believe closures are engineered to benefit insiders. That includes some Ada Lewis supporters, who believe charter operators wanted the building. District officials deny this and say they’ve only received a few cursory inquiries.
"There is definitely a feeling that it’s corrupt," Filardo said. "But it’s not necessarily that anyone’s getting rich. It’s just that there aren’t actually guidelines around how schools go from being your neighborhood school into a choice school. In the absence of that, it’s just who you know."
Like Brady, she says the solution is transparency and engagement. In D.C., clear criteria for proposed closures "made all the difference in the world," she said.
And community groups can be extremely helpful. "The neighborhood people are far more pragmatic than the politicians," Filardo said. "If Arlene Ackerman gives them the information about budgets and space, people will be extremely creative."
In Philadelphia, District officials say they’ve taken to heart these and other lessons from their research on school closings. They don’t want to repeat the Ada Lewis experience, in which a single school’s problems fester until an unpopular action is necessary. "People felt targeted, because it wasn’t happening elsewhere," said Nunery.
Instead, their strategy is to use the early rounds of community meetings to build support for districtwide improvements, so that when any specific closure or transformation proposals emerge, parents will see them as means to that end.
"When you look at Ada Lewis, what we didn’t do very well, and what we’re trying to do as part of this process, is [help] people understand both the academic rationale, as well as the operational rationale," said Floyd.
Filardo says that while it’s hard to prove that any district’s closure policies have translated into improved student performance, closures can provide some tangible benefits. "One of the results of the closings [in D.C.] was that they were able to bring back music and art teachers in all the elementary schools," she said. "A lot of money on the capital side was spent at the receiving schools."
But Tom Brady warns that while closures can save money in the long run, they shouldn’t be used to plug short-term budget gaps. "You’ll see bean-counters saying, ‘you’ve got too many schools, close this and you’ll save $4 million,’" he said. "You’ve got to say, ‘Wait a second – if you want peace in the city, you’ve got to set aside $500,000 for extra help [at the new school].’ It has to be an investment of time and resources if it’s going to be successful."
Meanwhile, Arenda Bethel says she’ll be watching carefully to see if the District makes good on its promises. She wants it to do a much better job of reaching out to parents – the District announced the first closure hearings for Ada Lewis in a little-noticed classified ad in the Philadelphia Daily News – and she wants to see it take their proposals seriously.
"[Parents’] voices need to be heard," she said. "Nobody knows better about how this will affect the community than the people in the community."