Rational Decisions and Heartbreak on School Closings

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When it comes to school closings, the arguments may make sense on paper, but the reality is much messier.

At University City High in Philadelphia on Friday, staff members and students were trying to absorb the decision by a state commission to close the school along with 22 others in the city.

At an often-heated and sometimes tearful hearing on Thursday night where 19 protesters, including Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, were arrested, school district officials said they needed to shut down schools to close a gaping budget hole.

"In my heart, I didn't want to accept it," said Glen Casey, 18, a senior, at the end of the school day Friday. "It broke my heart, it hit me hard."

Wrenching though the decision was, William R. Hite Jr., the superintendent, said it was simply a matter of math in a district where more than a quarter of the schools' 195,000 seats are now empty.

Dr. Hite said in an interview that at University City, with low academic performance and only 20 percent of its seats filled, "it's just not a sound fiscal decision to have those students remain in that program." Over all, the district said the school closings in Philadelphia would ease a budget deficit of $1.35 billion over five years.

Around the country, districts including Chicago, Newark and Washington have been echoing that rationale, with officials citing budget gaps as they draw up lists of schools to close at the end of the school year. District officials also say they need to close underperforming schools so that students can move to schools where they have a better chance of succeeding.

But critics say that while the spreadsheets or test scores might say one thing, even lower-performing, underused schools can serve as refuges in communities that have little else.

"The school is one of the foundations of the community," said Rosemarie Hatcher, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, which represents local home and school associations. "It's like a village. The schools know our kids and they look out for our kids."

In emotional speeches on Thursday night to Philadelphia's School Reform Commission, more than 30 teachers, students and parents said that children at schools scheduled for closing would have to walk long distances through dangerous neighborhoods to reach their new schools, some of which have poor records on academics, discipline and safety.

"There is no need to penalize the families in Germantown," said Dr. George Schuler, a 1963 graduate of Germantown High School in northwest Philadelphia. "Students need to be able to attend a local school." The commission voted 4-to-1 to close the school.

School closings fall disproportionately on poor and minority neighborhoods. "These school closings have been happening in communities that were already destabilized by the dismantling of public housing, by gentrification and effects of the economic crisis," said Pauline Lipman, professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In Chicago, where about 100 schools have been closed since 2001, Professor Lipman said that all but two were in low-income communities, and that 88 percent of the students affected were African-American.

Advocacy groups in a number of cities have made similar complaints. According to Daren Briscoe, a spokesman for the Department of Education, the department's Office of Civil Rights is investigating 33 complaints related to school closings in 29 districts across 22 states. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, districts closed 1,929 schools in 2010-11, the last year for which data is available.

Mr. Briscoe said that since October 2010, when the Office of Civil Rights first started tracking school-closing cases separately, the department has completed 27 investigations without finding any violations.

In Chicago, a commission set up to evaluate school closings said this week that the district could close or overhaul up to 80 schools next year. Becky Carroll, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Schools, said that even without a projected $1 billion deficit for the 2013-14 school year, "we can no longer afford to keep throwing money at half-empty dilapidated buildings as it's stretching our resources too thin."

Underused schools "are often deprived of the resources they need to provide children with a high-quality education," Ms. Carroll said. "By combining schools we can redirect resources to all schools so they can use the dollars to invest in supports that can help children thrive in the classroom: computer labs, libraries, specialized individual support, art and music," she said.

At Willa Cather Elementary School in the Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago, the principal, Hattie B. King, said that the school's second floor was now empty and that 250 students filled about half of the school's available seats.

"We have to focus all of our dollars on the bare necessities," Ms. King said. "Whereas if we had additional dollars coming in we could pick up some of the things like after-school programs that focus on the arts and music."

But Ms. King said that part of the reason enrollment had declined at the half-century-old school was that charter schools had been sprouting up in the neighborhood and siphoning students away, even though Willa Cather is a school where more than 80 percent of students achieved an above-proficient level on end-of-year state tests in reading, math and science last year.

Competition from charter schools is part of the story in many cities. In Philadelphia, for example, 23 percent of students were attending charter schools in the 2011-12 school year, up from 12 percent in 2004-5, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Nathan Saunders, president of the teachers' union in Washington, where the district has announced plans to close 15 schools by the end of the 2013-14 year, said, "What appears to be lack of interest in traditional neighborhood public education is in fact the result of new options being offered." He said there was little evidence that charter schools performed better than traditional schools.

And when students from closed schools are transferred to others, they may face violence at receiving schools, said Jitu Brown, education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago.

There is also little evidence that students are actually moved to better schools. In Chicago, one study of school closings from 2001 to 2006 found that 40 percent of the students simply re-enrolled in schools that were academically weak, and only 6 percent of displaced students moved to high-performing schools.

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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