Closing schools with care

Students protested the last round of Philadelphia school closings in March. Now the district plans to close many more.
Students protested the last round of Philadelphia school closings in March. Now the district plans to close many more. (CHARLES FOX / Staff)
Posted: December 17, 2012

By Tina Richardson

The School Reform Commission has taken on the unenviable task of closing nearly 40 of the city's public schools. Bravo to the members for their courage. They are sure to be bombarded by upset parents, fearful students, anxious teachers, and frustrated communities as they grapple with an issue that their predecessors sidestepped for decades.

No one wants to close schools - even schools that are drastically underused, in terrible physical condition, and persistently low-performing. As an alumna testified at a hearing on the closing of William Penn High, "I would never send my son here, but you should not close this school."

For depopulated neighborhoods where a school is the last remaining public facility, its closing can feel like the final nail in the coffin. And parents understandably worry about transportation, safety, and more when their children are transferred.

If we want these closings to represent increased rather than diminished opportunities for children, we should study last year's closings of eight Philadelphia schools and ask some basic questions:

How and when were students, families, faculty, and staff in the closing and receiving schools informed? How useful was the information they received? And what more could the district have done to address and allay their concerns?

What welcoming activities did the receiving schools conduct? Were the incoming students (and parents) connected to buddies to help them make the transition and feel like part of their new schools, even before September?

What services followed students into their new schools? If those schools received large numbers of kids with special needs, behavioral issues, or limited English proficiency, did they also receive the counselors, special education services, and bilingual teachers they needed to support their new students?

More than 2,100 students were transferred from closed schools last year, and thousands more in receiving schools were affected. At a recent SRC meeting, an impassioned Powel Elementary parent pleaded for additional support for students the school absorbed from Drew Elementary, which was closed last year. The transfers included many students with special needs and some living in shelters. Four months into this school year, have those resources arrived in the students' new school? And if not, when will they?

As Superintendent William Hite has said, closing scores of underperforming schools is a daunting but necessary task. If it's not handled properly, it will wreak havoc not only on the children forced to move, but also on the children, teachers, and support staff at receiving schools. However, appropriate communication and support can ensure that children are served better at properly staffed, properly funded, high-performing schools.

In closing so many schools, the district can't afford to foreclose opportunities for the thousands of reassigned students. It should learn from experience, not repeat it.


Tina Richardson is the associate dean for academic affairs at Drexel University's School of Education. She can be reached at tr395@drexel.edu.

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