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Is It Ever Appropriate to Close a School?

Today Deborah and Joe discuss whether and when schools should be closed. Deborah begins:

Dear Joe,

I'm accustomed to restaurants on Manhattan's West Side going out of business and new ones arriving. Sometimes one that I like disappears and sometimes I welcome the new one--a different taste. And now it's schools.  

For some reformers, the idea of schools closing and new ones opening is a virtue. It proves the market is doing what it should: weeding out the failures. Sometimes it's because of test scores, sometimes (especially with charters) because of a fiscal scandal, and sometimes it's not clear. It's happening to regular public schools and to charters. Disruption is sometimes considered a useful idea by proponents of change--including me. And at times we have, perhaps unfairly, required children to break the barriers. But, I hope, we have weighed the costs.

Disruptions impact the lives of real people--children, parents, teachers, custodians, lunchroom staff, etc. Changing schools, for children, means a shift in important predictabilities. They have just begun to figure out who to go to when the unexpected happens, who to trust, who to avoid ... and now all that will have to be re-learned, along with friendship circles and pecking orders and where the bathroom is. In short, the familiar disappears. For parents it means similar shifts in their lives: a new set of fellow parents and teachers and rules and regulations to adjust to. Who to call when ... ? Who to trust?

There's no one in the new school who remembers how far a child has come. "Do you remember when she had a melt-down everyday? Now, it's a rare thing."

The old-fashioned idea is that stability is valuable and that constantly shifting settings imposed serious burdens on young children and teens above all. Of course, the same is true for all the adults who work in the school whose lives--and whose children's lives--are turned upside down. There are the ripples all along the way.

It seems to me that reformers of every stripe are ignoring this--and applauding some closures and decrying others depending on their political stance. Unfortunately, it hurts whenever it happens and we are ignoring that injury by our silence.

When we see the coming and going of schools as just the market at work, we're in trouble.

Joe Nathan responds:

Deborah, I agree with you that closing schools and the disruption it brings is hard, whether it's for youngsters or adults. But sometimes, and that word "sometimes" is critical, closing a school is the right thing to do.

You and I have celebrated the effort that went into the creation of small schools in the old Julia Richman building in New York City. That large school ultimately was judged as a dysfunctional place and was closed. The building was converted into several small (district) schools, a medical clinic, and a nursery school.

You and I also have discussed and agreed that what happened in East Harlem more than 20 years ago was a great thing. You and others had the opportunity to create new small schools in large buildings.

I checked with East Harlem veteran Harvey Newman, a former NYC teacher who for decades has helped create strong districts and, more recently, charter public schools. He and the Center for Educational Innovation have continued to work with both districts and charters.

Harvey confirmed what I thought: The process that included creating new smaller district schools also involved closing some poorly operating large schools. As the process continued, some of the newer, smaller schools also were closed, often to be replaced by other schools. "Schools generally were closed because they were not functioning well, and because they attracted fewer and fewer students. Generally the two problems went together," he explained.

I also thought back about the process used in the Cincinnati public schools where I worked for seven years. In several cases, large, poorly functioning district schools were replaced with small "schools within schools," often created by groups of teachers, administrators, and community members. This process, though painful, helped eliminate the high school graduation gap between white and African American students.

Closing schools is a last resort. Unquestionably it can be overdone. Schools and the educators who work in them deserve opportunities to improve. A variety of financial and human resources need to be provided to help schools improve. It's not appropriate to compare an elite magnet school that screens out students via an admission test with a school that services "all comers." Student progress should be measured in various ways, not just test scores.

Whether it's a pilot school in Boston, a New Visions School in New York, or a charter, there also ought to be opportunities for educators to create new, potentially more effective options.

But I think the experiences at Julia Richman, East Harlem, and Cincinnati show that sometimes closing schools is the best thing for students. Do you agree?

Deborah and Joe have agreed to continue this conversation about closing schools next week. Meanwhile, reactions are welcome.

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