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Professor: Time to Redefine 'Data' for School Closings

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Parent and community input—and the historical perspective of a community—represent overlooked data sets in decisions about school closings, according to Muhammad A. Khalifa, an assistant professor of educational administration at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

"In this tough economic crisis, which really is now only beginning to trickle down to education and social services, Detroit and many other large cities are taking a very business-oriented approach to school closings," said Khalifa, a former public school teacher and administrator in Detroit. "The bottom line is money and test scores now."

But Khalifa, who studied a Texas community where an inner city high school was threatened with closure, believes these indicators tell only part of the story of the value of an inner city school to its community. He thinks the term "data" needs to be redefined.

"Parents' opinions are data," he said, in an interview about the recent closure of 49 public schools in inner-city Chicago. "What's happened over the years in that neighborhood is data. Teacher quality is data."

In an Urban Education research journal article published online March 15, Khalifa and his co-authors explored what happened in a historically black high school in a large Southwestern city that was threatened with closure.

"Nine hundred parents showed up [to protest.] People were going door to door. This was a school that was described as having 'poor parental involvement.' Yet they kept those administrators there all night," Khalifa said. Ultimately, the high school remained open and the parents won the battle.

"For activists and parents, the takeaway is that your collective solidarity and community activism matter. Numbers count. Relationships count. Your visibility and presence count," he said.

However, community solidarity around the country has declined in recent decades and people are increasingly "factionalized," Khalifa said. "Solidarity movements and activist movements have been attacked and dismantled," he said. "The community has to find a way to reinvent itself."

"Parents and other community members tend to have powerful voices with this memory in mind when they protest or contest school closings," said Khalifa. In his research, parents who rallied in Texas against a particular school closure referred to their "collective historical memory" of the comunity and the school's meaning within it.

Khalifa trains school leaders. "Unfortunately, most programs when they train administrators don't prepare them to look at that data. ... I give them a major assignment to go into the community and co-construct an activity with parents and the community," he explained. "We're used to going in as administrators and telling parents what they're going to do. With this assignment, it shifts the paradigm. They meet in a community location, not a school."

While he initially encounters some pushback from his school administrator students, "it's not until after they've done this assignment that they report back that it is one of the most meaningful. They learn there is so much untapped knowledge that rests with community voices, that we don't traditionally engage unless it's on our terms."

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