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Summer 2011

Closing Time

Schools close for many reasons: tight budgets, dismal performance, underenrollment, and failing buildings. We often ask why and when, but rarely ever how.

Chair on deskIn 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.”

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.

“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.”

Will the Kids Be All Right? When communities are outside the closure conversation, Mapp says it feels as if “reform is done to them, not with them.” That was what Ben Kirshner, assistant professor at the school of education at the University of Colorado – Boulder, found when he tracked the effect of an urban high school closing on its 550 displaced students.

“There was a policy narrative — there are too many seats, budget problems, it’s a chronically bad school, so we are saving these kids by closing it,” says Kirshner. Yet, he says, students did not view the school — with a deep history in the African American community — as a horrible place. He says closure was “interpreted as an attack or something done against their will that was harmful to them.”

Kirshner’s study, published last September in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, showed dropout rates among displaced students rose from 7 to 15 percent; the likelihood of graduating fell from 71 to 49 percent. Study coauthor Matthew Gaertner, who produced calculations for this article that were not part of the published study, said displaced student test scores dropped 12 percent in reading, 9 percent in math, and 19 percent in writing compared with what they would have scored had the school not closed (using modeling developed from historic test data).

The study also included surveys and interviews with 115 displaced students in which 25 percent reported being mistreated by youths or adults at new schools, blamed on the stigma of coming from a failed school. Forty percent described a loss of friendships; 40 percent also reported weaker relationships with adults at their new school. Only 8 percent appreciated the new school’s greater program offerings. Because the study tracked students for just one year after closure it’s possible that they may perform better and feel happier as time passes.

Honoring the History It is not surprising that a school closure can make a community feel singled out and disrespected. What can leaders do to lessen tensions? In Baltimore, Sarbanes says district leaders must publicly take some responsibility for failed interventions or more that might have been done. And community discussions, he says, must acknowledge that even in troubled schools, good things are happening and there are gifted teachers.

“You have to honor that,” he says. “You want to recognize that people in this school are trying really hard and doing their best. Then you say, ‘Let’s look at the data.’”

In other words, schools being closed cannot be painted with a scarlet F. In fact, Sarbanes says the district created a policy last year aimed at recycling the names of closed schools. When new schools are opened, he says, they look at the list of closed schools to see if the name may be resurrected. These are details that school leaders say allow more latitude for reform. On the other side of the country, keeping a school name was not a question: It was essential to closing Sacramento High School (“Sac High”) in 2003 and reopening it as a charter school with four academies.

“It was the second oldest high school west of the Mississippi and you have so many graduates and alumni who have a really strong connection to the institution,” says P.K. Diffenbaugh, a current student in the Ed.L.D. Program and former principal at a Sac High charter academy. “It’s not as easy as saying, ‘Let’s close it and start fresh.’”

Opposition to the closure was overcome because the incoming charter was run by St. Hope Corp., founded by former NBA star and Sac High alum Kevin Johnson. Diffenbaugh says leaders sought to show respect, keeping the school colors (purple and white), mascot (the dragon), hymn, and motto.

“We really tried to tell the story as, ‘We are not getting rid of this horrible institution’ — although it was failing kids and was a huge injustice — but we tried to tell the public that, ‘We are revitalizing the school to restore its proper place in the community,’” he says.

At the same time, some things had to change — and fast. “Kids had become used to a culture where they could pretty much do what they pleased,” he says. “When we got there, they had ‘Freshmen Fridays.’ Upperclassmen could dump [freshmen] in the trashcan, literally. That had become an accepted rite of passage.” When they halted it, Diffenbaugh recalls, “a lot of kids — and even parents — were pushing back.”

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.”

Lessening Disruption 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.