Considering School Closures as Philadelphia’s Empty Germantown High School Faces Sheriff’s Sale

In her profound and provocative book about the community impact of Chicago’s closure of 50 so-called “underutilized” public schools at the end of the 2013 school year, Eve Ewing considers the effect of school closures on the neighborhoods they once anchored.  Ewing’s book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, is about Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and a set of school closures in Chicago in which 88 percent of the affected students were African American, and 71 percent of the closed schools had majority-African American teachers. (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 5)

Ewing writes: “Understanding these tropes of death and mourning as they pertain not to the people we love, but to the places where we loved them, has a particular gravity during a time when the deaths of black people at the hands of the state—through such mechanisms as police violence and mass incarceration—are receiving renewed attention. As the people of Bronzeville understand, the death of a school and the death of a person at the barrel of a gun are not the same thing, but they also are the same thing. The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone, they’d prefer you be forgotten.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

Public school closures were one of three “school turnarounds” prescribed for so-called “failing schools” in the No Child Left Behind Act; they were also as part of Arne Duncan’s priorities in Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants. (The other two turnaround strategies were firing the principal and half the staff or privatizing school by charterizing it or turning it over to a private Educational Management Organization.)  At the end of the school year in 2013, Chicago closed 50 schools. Other big city school districts also imposed school closure as a “turnaround” strategy. Philadelphia closed 23 schools that same year.

Chicago and Philadelphia were also both rapidly expanding marketplace school competition by imposing a management theory called portfolio school reform. It is a strategy that models business school thinking.  The district manages traditional public and charter schools as though they are  investments in a stock portfolio. The idea is to launch new schools and close low scoring schools and schools that become under-enrolled. It is imagined that the competition will drive school improvement, but that has not been the result anyplace where this scheme has been launched. School districts in Chicago and Philadelphia launched a growing number of charter schools at the same time the overall student population in the school district was declining. As families experimented with school choice, both districts shut down neighborhood schools described as becoming “underutilized.”  School closure was a top down policy, and when it was imposed, the justification was presented with reams of technical data. In Philadelphia, the school closures were imposed by a state-appointed School Reform Commission. By popular demand, the Philadelphia school district has now been returned to democratic governance under a locally elected school board, a development which may reflect partly on the community’s response to the massive school closures.

I thought about the wave of 2013 school closures this morning as I read an article from Tuesday’s Philadelphia Inquirer about Philadelphia’s storied Germantown High School—now covered by the newspaper as a mere eyesore, an abandoned hulk of a building. The Inquirer’s Hannah Chinn reports: “When the Philadelphia School District closed Germantown High School in 2013 just shy of its 100th anniversary and announced plans to sell it, some residents felt blindsided and confused.  Others were hopeful. How could their community continue without a central education facility? Who would take on the responsibility of the building?… Could the building be redeveloped to offer affordable housing…?  Vocational training? A resource center? Six years later, all those questions remain unanswered… In September 2013, the Maryland-based Concordia Group began negotiations to purchase Germantown High.”  The sale was opposed in court, but, “In 2017, after an appeal from the School District, the court approved the sale of … five schools.  But the Concordia Group no longer seemed so sure… The two Germantown schools are not listed on Concordia’s site—or seemingly anywhere else, except with the sheriff… This spring (2019), unpaid balances have caught up to the property. On May 15, the high school is scheduled for tax sale. According to the Sheriff’s Office, if a property owner fails to pay utility bills, schools taxes, or city taxes, the property may be auctioned at a tax delinquency sale so the city can collect what it’s owed. The opening bid on Germantown High next month is listed as $1,500.”

In a 2016 report on the wave of school closings across America’s cities, Rachel M. Cohen describes the 2013 Philadelphia school closures that included Germantown High School: “In 2012, citing a $1.4 billion deficit, Philadelphia’s state-run school commission voted to close 23 schools—nearly 10 percent of the city’s stock… Amid the fiscal pressure for state budget cuts, declining student enrollment, charter-school growth, and federal incentives to shut down low-performing schools, the district assured the public that closures would help put the city back on track toward financial stability… While black students were 40 percent of Chicago’s school district population in 2013, they made up 88 percent of those affected by the closures. In Philadelphia, black students made up 58 percent of the district, but 81 percent of those affected by closures.”

You might wonder whether any academic research has been conducted on the effects of Philadelphia’s school closures and on the use of school closure as a strategy for supporting higher academic achievement among the affected students.  The University of Pennsylvania’s Matthew P. Steinberg and John M. MacDonald just published such a study of the impact of the 2013 public school closures in Philadelphia. The study (published in the Economics of Education Review, Volume 69, April 2019) is paywalled, but the conclusions are reported in the abstract: “We estimate the impact of public school closings in Philadelphia on student achievement and behavioral outcomes. While school closures had no effect on the average achievement of displaced students, achievement increased among displaced students attending higher-performing schools following closure. The achievement of students (already) attending receiving-schools, however, was negatively affected by the receipt of displaced students. School absences increased significantly for displaced students following closure. We also find that the achievement of displaced and receiving-school students declined as the fraction of displaced students attending a receiving-school increased, and displaced students missed more days of school and received more suspension days the farther they traveled to their new school following closure.”  It is clear that the educational experiment has not been an astounding success for the students involved.

The new study on Philadelphia pretty much replicates the findings in a research brief summarized in January by the National Education Policy Center: “In School Closure as a Strategy to Remedy Low Performance, Gail Sunderman of the University of Maryland, and Erin Coghlan and Rick Mintrop of the University of California, Berkeley, conclude that closures are ‘a high-risk/low-gain strategy that fails to hold promise with respect to either student achievement or non-cognitive well-being.’ Sunderman, Coghlan and Mintrop found that closures don’t necessarily result in students transferring to higher performing schools. In addition, the transfer itself can set students back as they adapt to new environments. School closures also often fail to deliver promised cost savings, the brief’s author’s note. That’s because closures come with hidden costs such as mothballing buildings, transporting students to schools that are farther from their homes, and renovating receiving schools to accommodate additional enrollment.”

After Rahm Emanuel’s administration closed 50 public schools at the end of the 2013 school year, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research documented extremely negative effects not only for the students whose schools were shuttered but also for students at the so-called “receiving” schools and for the surrounding community across Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.” “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

The Chicago Consortium on School Research continues: “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning… The intensity of the feelings of loss were amplified in cases where schools had been open for decades, with generations of families attending the same neighborhood school.  Losing their closed schools was not easy and the majority of interviewees spoke about the difficulty they had integrating and socializing into the welcoming schools.”  “Even though welcoming school staff and students did not lose their schools per se, many also expressed feelings of loss because incorporating a large number of new students required adjustments… Creating strong relationships and building trust in welcoming schools after schools closed was difficult.. Displaced staff and students, who had just lost their schools, had to go into unfamiliar school environments and start anew. Welcoming school communities also did not want to lose or change the way their schools were previously.”

We have lived through two decades of top-down school reform—including prescriptions for turning around our society’s lowest performing schools—the schools situated in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods. In her new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing suggests that we reframe our thinking about school closure as a turnaround strategy. “When Barbara Byrd-Bennett (then Chicago’s school CEO) made her statement to the board (who were considering the proposed school closures), she encouraged them—and anyone else who might be listening, including journalists and average citizens—to see Chicago’s empty school buildings as a ‘utilization crisis,’ a matter of dire urgency demanding immediate attention… Within this frame, the frame of the utilization crisis, school closure indeed appears to be the only option for anyone who cares about children… But if we consider not only the painting but the frame, we might come to other conclusions because we have seen that, when considering a school’s value, there is more to the assessment than meets they eye. There is the symbolic weight of a school as a bastion of community pride, and also the fear that losing the school means conceding a battle in a much larger ideological war over the future of a city and who gets to claim it. There is the need to consider that losing the school represents another assault in a long line of racist attacks against a people… There is our intensely segregated society to account for, in which those who attend the school experience a fundamentally different reality than those who have the power to steer its future. And finally, there is the intense emotional aftermath that follows school closure….” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 158-159)

Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closures should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions… What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p.159)

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4 thoughts on “Considering School Closures as Philadelphia’s Empty Germantown High School Faces Sheriff’s Sale

  1. While en route to a medical appointment on Chicago’s south side, a woman rushed onto the elevator to greet an old friend. It turns out they went to elementary school together. in Chicago. They hadn’t seen each other since school years. Guessing their age, I imagine they were in school together over 55 years ago! It was a vivid reminder of the power of place – in this case a public school – to enrich memory, ground community, and foster connection. As this post reminds us, public schools are far more than temporary stopping points in our lives, but enduring aspects of our identity both as individuals and communities.

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