Closing TimeBy Laura Pappano
“As an educator I think about instruction, policies, and processes driving instruction,” he says. “Parents think about the place where their kid shows up every day. They think about the marching band.” While Cohen says closure is a key reform tool (“carrots alone will not get you there”), because of the divergent ways in which educators and families views schools, he says that how leaders engage the community matters — a lot.
Professor Thomas Payzant, M.A.T.’63, C.A.S.’66, Ed.D.’68, former superintendent of Boston Public Schools from 1995 to 2006 and author of Urban School Leadership, learned this the hard way. Near the beginning of his tenure, Payzant says he decided to close the Wheatley Middle School in Roxbury because enrollments were sagging and the Dearborn Middle School was nearby.
“I thought my logic was impeccable,” says Payzant. “Why have two middle schools so close together when the number choosing the Wheatley was fairly low?” The plan however, was met with outrage and looked, he recalls, like the new white superintendent closing a school in the heart of a community of color as his first big move. “I realized it was a mistake, and I had to admit that and back off,” he says.
Don’t ‘Sneak Up on the Community’
Payzant says the experience taught him “not to sneak up on the community.” And yet, says Lecturer Karen Mapp, Ed.M.’93, Ed.D.’99, director of the Education Policy and Management Program, this is precisely what districts continue to do.
“We tend to make these decisions behind closed doors and deliver the information and then wonder why people are angry and upset,” she says. Too many leaders “have a deficit model” in which they “make the assumption that the community has nothing to offer the school improvement process,” she says.
Engaging the community is one of those things in which it matters how it’s done. While some districts consider angry shouting meetings part of the school closure process that must be endured, Mapp says genuine community involvement can actually be useful. In the Baltimore City Public Schools, where under CEO Andres Alonso, Ed.M.’99, Ed.D.’06, the district closed 26 schools between 2008 and 2010 (one more is closing this year), leaders are relentlessly inclusive.
“In Baltimore, there is a very clear sense that a school is an ongoing act of community imagination about what we want for our kids,” says Michael Sarbanes, director of the district’s Office of Community Engagement. “If you look at a school as a place where experts do expert intervention around education, when that is failing, what you do is kick out all the people who are supposed to be doing it. But there is not a community dimension to that model.”
By seeking community input — not when a school is already recommended for closure by Alonso (to then be voted on by the school committee), but in the stage before, as leaders think through which schools to recommend to Alonso — in Baltimore, community ideas are more than decorative. As the result of such meetings, Sarbanes says the district was persuaded to give one struggling school another chance and to let a final senior class finish up, even as other grades were curtailed. Call it a “collaborative offensive,” but Sarbanes argues that “you can take more radical steps by engaging the community.”
When school closures are embedded in a strategy to create better school choices for children, it feels like less of an attack. This is not to say that there aren’t angry shouting meetings in Baltimore — there are. “There is good anger in those angry conversations,” says Sarbanes. “But there is the widespread sense that the school system is trying to do the right things for kids. You can sort of be angry within the family.”