Closing TimeBy Laura Pappano
Schools close for many reasons: tight budgets, dismal performance, underenrollment, and failing buildings. We often ask why and when, but rarely ever how.
In mid-November, just as Justin Vernon, Ed.M.’06, was settling into the academic year and his first solo principalship at the Farragut Elementary School in Boston, he received a phone call at home. His supervisor was giving him a heads up: At a principal’s professional development meeting scheduled for the next day, he should know that even though the Farragut hadn’t been on any lists — well, Vernon might learn that closing was a possibility.
Sure enough, at the meeting he was told that his school was among 10 Superintendent Carol Johnson was recommending be shut down (six others would be merged with other schools). In stunningly short order, Vernon’s school year changed. And while his oft-stated goal that the Farragut make adequate yearly progress has not shifted in the months since, so much else has.
For Vernon, an Ohio-bred educator who favors suits, bow ties, and the vocabulary of ed reform, the closure has changed the content and timbre of his work. Even as he guides his instructional leadership team to give kids more practice analyzing data — stuff he relishes — he tries to get ahead of feelings of uncertainty among staff, students, and parents. Speaking in his high-ceilinged office with rickety and mismatched BPS-issue furniture and nibbling on prepackaged Granny Smith apple slices, he says plainly that closing was not something he imagined or trained for. “This,” he says, “has been a learning process for me.”
How does a principal lead in this setting? Do you fight? Relent? What happens to the kids? The families? The teachers? The quilt hanging in the office showing the handprints of an entire fifth-grade graduating class? Where does that go? Eager to drive instructional fixes, how do you alter the timeline when there is no next year? Bite off less? Or more?
Better at When Than How
As school districts around the country grapple with turnaround strategies and fiscal realities, school closure (and consolidation) has become a popular option in districts from Baltimore to Detroit, from Boston to Denver, even in rural places like Maine and North Dakota. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1,515 elementary and seconary schools were closed during the 2008–09 school year, while just 149 were closed in 2007–08 and 242 in 2005–06.
Districts, of course, shut schools for different reasons. In Baltimore City, closure is for poor performance, not cost-cutting; Washington, D.C., has closed schools to save money and better use district resources given that they have 150,000 seats and only 46,000 students filling them. School closure, in other words, has become an answer to falling enrollments, poor performance, and safety issues — or a combination thereof. While districts have developed their own guidelines for when to close a school, Bryan Hassel, cofounder of Public Impact, an education consulting firm in Chapel Hill, N.C., says there has been less thought given to how closings should unfold.
“Some districts have gotten very good at that analytical process,” he says. “But we are much lousier at engaging parents and the community and much lousier at … what we do for the students.”