ED. Magazine

Closing Time

By Laura Pappano

This has school and district leaders facing a task that is more emotionally charged than it appears. When Margery Yeager, special assistant for transformation management for the D.C. public schools, attended her first school closing meeting in 2008 — she’s now helped close 28 schools — the meeting was so contentious that, she recalls, “I honestly thought at the time, ‘I don’t know how we will make this happen because there is just such vocal opposition.’”

Emotional Ups and Downs
For Vernon, the Farragut’s inclusion on the closure list drew an immediate and emotional response that was suddenly a powerful force in his school. He broke the news in an adrenaline-charged staff meeting that one teacher said felt like a movie scene as they decided to band together and fight the decision. Suddenly, teachers were making signs, planning rallies, and speaking at school committee meetings. Vernon, along with teachers and parents, feverishly drafted a proposal for making the Farragut into an in-district charter school–like “innovation school.”

The effort failed, and by mid-December the school committee voted to close the school. While there was a spirit of camaraderie, fourth-grade teacher Margery Mendenhall is not sure the fatigue and stirred-up feelings of anger were worth it.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would try to close my ears and focus on my classroom and my children,” she says, adding that there is a big transition ahead for students. “I’m concerned about behavior problems — about a new school, new teachers, new friends, new commute. Parents are anxious about logistics.”

Vernon has tried to anticipate concerns. In March, as families began planning for next year, he invited principals to the Farragut so parents could meet them. He organized field trips to visit schools. Still, aware that state standards tests were coming up, Vernon guided an effort to raise attendance, which had slipped to 89 percent. Thanks to a class versus class pizza party competition, it rose to 93 percent.

In leading his staff, Vernon reflects more than usual and reads Ronald Heifetz, author of many leadership books, including Leadership Without Easy Answers. He feels himself treading new ground, seeking academic gains (keep up the emphasis on writing!) while acknowledging emotions.

“I have found myself speaking to my staff in a different way than I ever had before,” he says. He has vowed to help them find positions and in March was looking over resumes, conducting mock interviews, and networking with other principals.

“I don’t know what the effects are of me saying, ‘I know this hurts’ or ‘I know this is difficult,’” he says. “But I think it’s important to do and to try. To say that we are in this together and we are having these emotions, maybe in some way just articulating it helps.”

Why Closing Is So Darned Hard
To read the text of the U.S. Department of Education School Improvement Grant program with its four turnaround models, closing a school sounds easy. You shut it and move kids to a better one. The problem is that schools are not simply places where kids earn (or don’t earn) passing test scores. They are not even places where neat instructional practices unfold to deliver content knowledge and skills to students in inquiry-based curriculum. Well, they are, but not to students and families, says Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight.

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