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Closing Schools While Opening Charters: Lessons Learned From Philly, Chicago

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Las Vegas

Closing a school is politically difficult and emotionally charged, but shutting down a traditional public school in a district with an expanding charter sector is especially tricky, and community members often feel left out of the process.

How to handle these situations and minimize conflict and public pushback was the topic of a panel at the 14th annual National Charter Schools Conference in Las Vegas. Stakeholders from Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington weighed in on their experiences in districts where this has taken place, and I grabbed a couple of them after the session to ask for their advice based on the lessons they've learned.

"I think that any school closure decision that is blind to quality and performance is wrongheaded," said Andrew Broy, the president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. "If it's just about utilization rates and abstract enrollment numbers, I think that's the wrong approach because then you're adding capacity when the professed reason for the closure was utilization."

Last year, Chicago shuttered around 50 "underutilized" schools in basically one fell swoop. 

Broy says it is essential when closing a school to have a plan to transfer affected students into better schools, a best practice echoed by Danielle Floyd, the director of capital programs for the  Philadelphia school district, who says people respond better to a trade-off that ultimately benefits them.

Since 2005, Philadelphia has closed approximately 48 traditional schools but only 10 charters. The tension between the sectors and among parents is further exacerbated by the fact that traditional public schools in Philadelphia are usually shut down within a single school year, while charters are given three years from the time the decision to close the school is made to when they're actually boarded up.

In order to ease the potential conflict, Floyd says districts need to be very transparent and deliberate about their intentions. Conversations with the public should not focus on why a school is being closed, because the district has made its decision, but rather on how it should be done right, says Floyd. "How do we, at the end of this, walk away where families, students, parents, and teachers can say, 'you know, this process was successful because I was able to provide input.'"

Finally, charter school operators looking to move into an area where the traditional public school has been closed have to understand and be sensitive to the context, says Broy.

"School closings don't happen in a vacuum. They happen in neighborhoods," says Broy. "What charter advocates sometimes miss is that if [...] you live in a neighborhood where jobs have gone away, and there's violence, and there's disinvestment, the decision to close a school has a different sort of impact. So we as the charter community have to think carefully about how we engage these communities."

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