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Florida School Closures: Why Are High Poverty Schools Under the Gun?

Guest post by a Florida teacher.

On Election Day, residents in Brevard County, Florida, rejected a sales tax increase to support schools. According to the Florida Today, the sales tax would have raised about $32 million annually, which the district planned to use to buy new school buses, replace roofs and chillers and purchase new computers to meet a state mandate. Three days after voters shot down the proposed half-cent sales tax, Brevard Public Schools officials recommend closing four schools during the 2013-14 school year. The closures are estimated to save the district about $3 million, a fraction of the shortfall it is facing. Board Chair Barbara Murray stated, "We will rise to the occasion. Our public has sent us a clear message, and we will do whatever it takes to maintain our quality education under the current restrictions."

It's simply unfathomable that Superintendent Brian Binggeli considers closing South Lake Elementary School a means to maintain quality education in the district. South Lake Elementary is a school that has found success with students living in poverty while schools all over the nation scramble to find a way to do just the same. According to Florida's 2010-2011 Rankings, South Lake Elementary was in the top 13% of all the elementary schools in the state and ranked 4th amongst all schools that had a population of students with over 80% classified as being on free/reduced lunch. The Florida Department of Education (DOE) has found the school to be "high performing" for nine consecutive years. Additionally, AllThingsPLC recognizes the school as a National Model of Professional Learning Communities at Work.

Even more disturbing is the fact that the school board voted to close another Title 1 school in the same town as South Lake Elementary just one year ago, and hundreds of students were redistricted. Not just the students from the closed school were affected, but students from 5 other schools as well. A school board vote in favor of the superintendent's proposal will lead to hundreds of kids attending their third school in as many years. Substantial evidence and studies show that mobility is correlated with lower academic achievement levels; even Florida's VAM formula recognizes that! It has been found that children who moved 3 or more times had rates of school dropout that were nearly one-third of a standard deviation higher than those who were school stable. Frequent mobility was also associated with significantly lower reading and math achievement.

Where is the logic in the superintendent's thinking? Some parents at the school, such as Mike Nunez, ask the poignant question, "Does it really all come down to money, class, and/or race?" Nunez notes South Lake Elementary has one of the highest poverty and minority rates of all the nearly 100 schools in the district. He stated that in the history of Brevard County, six schools in the North Area have been closed, with each of them lying in economically depressed areas (never in any areas considered to be "Affluent" neighborhoods). Additionally, Nunez suggests that no written criteria for how schools were chosen for possible closures have been found.

According to the Brevard County's School Board's own 2012 Capital Needs Assessment, South Lake is in need of fewer capital improvements than most schools in the district, including some of the schools to which South Lake Elementary students would be relocated. South Lake is 97% utilized while another area school that is both older and in greater need of capital improvements is 91% utilized. For whatever the reason, the School Board is not looking at closing schools in the more densely school populated Central Melbourne area where schools are under-utilized averaging around 80% utilized.

Nunez asks, "Did the school board feel the parents and community would fail to rally behind the school due to economic status?" If that is the case, the school board was woefully wrong. In one week nearly 1,400 people have become part of the effort to save South Lake on Facebook, about 700 have signed this petition, parents and community members came in droves to a rally last week, all the area elementary schools under PTO leadership are united, and politicians from all over the state are supporting the cause, as well as numerous national parent organizations.

Tuesday, November 20, the School Board will vote on whether or not to accept the superintendent's proposal. Hundreds will be there hoping that the school board will support the case for South Lake and find budget cuts that will not be so detrimental to a population of vulnerable students.

What do you think? Are low income schools more likely to be closed down in your experience?

(The author of this post is a teacher in this District, who asked to remain anonymous.)

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