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School closings: Top 5 issues

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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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