Closing TimeBy Laura Pappano
When changing such troubling habits raises objections, it’s clear why it took several years to end open campus at lunch, require uniforms, have teachers greet each student with a handshake, make home visits routine, and place administrators beyond the school’s gates so students could safely walk to catch city buses.
“Changing the culture of a school is probably the most difficult thing to do,” Diffenbaugh says. “You tell a story; the narrative has to be about restoring the school to prominence, yet your program has to be fundamentally different.”
School closings are clearly about more than implementing policy, which is why so-called “angry shouting meetings” have come to feel like part of the process. Yet it’s important to realize that this is not just venting. “There are questions buried under that anger,” observes Yeager.
Difficult as it may seem, she says, leaders must engage students, parents, teachers — and listen. Last year, for example, when the Scott Montgomery Elementary School in Washington, D.C., was consolidated into the Walker Jones Educational Complex, parents objected loudly. A key problem? The new school wasn’t far away, but required children to cross New York Avenue, a major artery.
“It’s like a highway,” says Melissa Martin, Ed.M.’03, principal at the Montgomery and now principal at Walker Jones. The district promised crossing guards, but it didn’t satisfy worried parents. Finally, the district agreed to a bus from the old school to the new one. That concession, says Martin, let her community feel heard and allowed the transition to move forward. Later, they organized a barbecue to bring together families from Montgomery and Walker Jones, which included an assistant principal from each school.
Closing a school in any city demands keeping community members in the loop, if only to admit what you don’t know, says Yeager. She learned that lesson after arriving at one school closing meeting at which the community had no idea their school was being shut down at the end of the year, she says. “We had had done such a bad job of communication.”
To prevent information voids, Yeager now forms a “transition team” at each school facing closuring or consolidation, drawing together principals, parents, community members, teachers, and students. She urges them to work through how events should unfold and how to communicate. She also encourages connections, as when students at two consolidating schools decided to meet before school opened. “Student government reps met at a McDonald’s and talked to other student reps about what the issues are. Kids at all levels are anxious about the transition.”
Yes, on data sheets, schools are tracked on performance, enrollment, and judged against budget savings targets. But in living experience, they represent webs of relationships. Closing — no way around it — is a major disruption.
One recent morning, four fourth graders who gathered in Vernon’s office snacked on leftovers from the celebratory student-of-the-month breakfast and shared conflicted feelings about the Farragut’s closure. Jasmani was excited about maybe taking a bus for the first time, but sad not to graduate from the same elementary school as his brother. Illannysh said it “might be a good opportunity.” Abigail was “kind of sad and kind of happy.” Nasir, a gentle-seeming boy with a deliberate way of speaking, may have captured it best. “I think this is a lot about the goodbyes,” he said, pausing to articulate his worry. “I’m kind of a hard friend-maker.”
— Laura Pappano is freelance writer and author of Inside School Turnarounds.