It's hard to argue that a high school where half the students drop out is serving the students or the community, and officials nationwide are taking tough measures to tackle the problem, including closing some of the worst-performing schools. New York City recently announced plans to close or phase out 19 schools, including Washington Irving High School, which graduates 48 percent of its students, and Grace Dodge Career and Technical School with a graduation rate of 35 percent.
I have talked with some of the officials and experts who believe closing schools is sometimes warranted, and in my experience at least, they've been genuinely concerned about the students' future. Still, I often wonder whether they have grappled enough with the terrible toll these decisions can take on a community. Research by my organization, Public Agenda, suggests that these decisions can leave a legacy of distrust and alienation that persists for years. Officials need to think carefully about what closing a school means to parents and local residents. Here are some questions parents typically have:
- Do you really have to close the school to improve student learning? Most parents struggle to understand how closing a school actually helps the students. In focus groups, we asked parents in low-performing districts what should happen to a hypothetical school where -- among other problems -- most students don't read at grade level, and most don't graduate. Even with the facts right before their eyes, the parents nearly unanimously rejected the idea of closing the school. When the moderator presented arguments in favor of closing the schools, some parents called for replacing the principal and teachers, but they still rejected the idea of closing it. The broader American public is more critical of public education than parents and less attached to particular schools, but even here, there's pushback. The 2010 Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll found that 54 percent of Americans would rather give a persistently failing school extra help and resources as opposed to closing it, even when presented with options like bringing in a new charter school, re-opening the school with a new principal, or sending students to better schools nearby.
- Do you understand what it means to our community? Closing a school may make sense from a management perspective, but parents and community members nearly always see it as a defeat and a loss. In the low-income communities where we did our research, parents often saw local schools as important symbols of community life, and many had strong feelings of loyalty and affection for them. In Detroit, one mother told us:
Detroit Public Schools represent our history... our legacy. Detroit public schools are a part of Detroit. If Detroit public schools fail, Detroit fails. They look bad -- we look bad... We want to succeed.
- Are you sure the new school will be better? There is a growing expert debate on whether charters are always more effective than traditional schools and whether closing schools actually saves districts money. In our focus groups, parents often had first-hand experience with charters, and many had good things to say about them. But most did not see them as public schools (even though they are publicly chartered), and most still wanted to protect and improve their traditional neighborhood schools. Beyond this, most parents worry that poverty, uninvolved parents, money "not getting to the classroom," and a popular culture that undercuts learning will make it hard for even the best principals and teachers to succeed. Their question is whether closing their school and opening another one will really address these issues.
- Are you really listening? Many of the parents we interviewed lived in communities that struggle economically, and many believed that their interests are generally ignored by decision makers -- distrust of "the district" and "downtown" is not new. But one of the most dispiriting findings from our work is that some officials appear to make school closing controversies even worse through breathtakingly inept communications. One parent activist told this story:
So the [school district] sent a letter home on Wednesday... in the kids' backpacks that said, 'Your school is slated to be merged with [another school]... This will be presented at the meeting of the school committee tonight at 6 o'clock.' That's how we found out... The teachers found out at a staff meeting at 8:00 am that morning... This is [not] how you...talk to families if you want them to stay."
There may be times when school closings can improve the children's chances at a good education, and to the extent that is true, that option has to be on the table. But leaders should know that the trade-off is a particularly difficult one for families and communities -- somewhat akin to a doctor amputating a patient's leg. Sometimes you have to do it to save a life, but you would never take such a drastic step without trying every other alternative first. And you would certainly never do it without talking at length to the patient about the options, the pros and cons of each, and what will happen afterward.