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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More Education News from Chicago: WBEZ Publishes the Troubling History of Chicago’s Public School Closures

It is quite a week for education news from Chicago.  Yesterday this blog covered the first teachers’ strike at a charter school network, UNO-Acero Charter Schools in Chicago.

Today’s post considers nearly two decades of closures of traditional neighborhood schools in Chicago.  Chicago’s closure of so-called “failing” schools began in 2002. Two years later, Chicago’s technocratic model of test-based, punitive, turnaround-based school reform was formalized into Renaissance 2010, the program led by Arne Duncan. The “turnaround” idea—later brought by Duncan into federal programs— was to punish schools posting low test scores by firing teachers and principals, closing schools, and replacing them with privately operated charter schools.  It was an early example of an ideology the inventor of this kind of school policy calls “portfolio school reform“—the idea that a district manage its schools, public and charter alike, as though they are a stock portfolio. Keep and invest in the schools that raise scores, and shed the failures.

The “portfolio” model features disruption as a virtue and condemns stability as the product of bureaucracy and tradition.  It is a business-school idea whose proponents have forgotten to consider that real children, parents and communities are involved, and that there might be human damage from this kind of disruption. The theory involves test scores, moving kids around, and formulas to determine which buildings are being optimally utilized. The ideology dreams up a spiral of continuous growth in the number of high-scoring schools.

On Monday, Chicago’s WBEZ published a history of the Chicago school closures which have been the centerpiece of this plan: “In the time it has taken for a child to grow up in Chicago, city leaders have either closed or radically shaken up some 200 public schools—nearly a third of the entire district…. These decisions, defended as the best and only way to improve chronically low-performing schools or deal with serious under-enrollment, have meant 70,160 children—the vast majority of them black—have seen their schools closed or all staff in them fired… 61,420 black children affected. The number of children who have lived through a Chicago school closing since 2002 is jaw dropping, and the impact on the black community in particular has been profound. A total of 70,160 Chicago students have experienced either a school closing or a total re-staffing of their school firsthand; of those, 88 percent are black. That’s a wildly disproportionate number… Some 7,368 Latino children have lived through a school shakeup.  Meanwhile, white students have been nearly untouched.  In almost 17 years, just 533 white students have experienced a closing.”

WBEZ reporters attempt to remain agnostic about whether this sort of school reform has been a good or bad thing in Chicago. They report that school achievement as measured by tests has improved, but they also add details that make it hard to know what caused higher scores. One place scores have risen is in the growing number of highly selective schools in Chicago. The reporters add, however, that the rest is only speculative: “And to the core question of whether school shakeups made a difference for the students they were meant to help at chronically low-performing schools, there is no easy answer.  The city still considers 10 percent of district-run schools so low performing they need ‘intensive support,’ though it considers nearly 80 percent to be in ‘good standing.’  That’s a much rosier picture than in 2002, but both the tests used to evaluate students and the accountability systems used to evaluate schools have  changed dramatically, making comparisons fraught.  And even if it were possible to compare to 2002, it’s impossible to say what’s behind any improvement.”  “After nearly two decades, the school system is still confronting the same two problems that prompted it to begin shuttering schools in the first place. It still struggles with chronically low-performing schools.  And despite the pain and protests that accompanied so many school closings, the system has a more dramatic under-enrollment problem today than it did when it started shutting down schools in 2002.”

WBEZ‘s reporters also interview students, parents and teachers who have been forced to change schools, many of them dislocated more than once—separated from friends, beloved teachers, family traditions and neighborhoods. The reporters reference the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s report on the mourning process that has affected students and families not only in the schools that were shut down but in the schools that received masses of new students, where significant readjustment followed.

And WBEZ reporters also talk with Eve Ewing, the University of Chicago sociologist whose profound new book portrays widespread grieving across Black Chicago for the loss of community institutions woven into the lives of generations of families and their neighborhoods: “‘It’s heartbreaking,’ said Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociology professor whose recent book examined the 2013 school closings in Bronzeville and their impact on the African-American community.  Ewing said the ‘astronomical’ numbers show school closings have ‘actually become part of the fabric of blackness in Chicago for many people.’  She said school closings play into social instability, ‘and the fact that so many black Chicagoans feel like this city is not a stable or a safe place to stay—and are leaving.'”  The reporters add that Chicago Public Schools have lost 42,000 students since 2013. The assumption is that school closures have been part of the motivation for families to move to Chicago’s suburbs or to Northwest Indiana.

Ironically on Monday, the same day WBEZ published its history of Chicago’s school closures, a Cook County judge blocked the Chicago Public Schools’ plan (see here, here, and here) to close another predominantly African American school, the National Teachers Academy, this one located in the South Loop. Chicago Public Schools had planned to convert the building into a high school to serve the area just south of downtown, an area lacking a high school. The District immediately announced it would accept the judge’s ruling.  It will keep the National Teachers Academy open as an elementary school to prevent further disruption among students, their families, and the community.

Parents have been protesting the planned closure of the highly rated, majority black, traditional public National Teachers Academy for several years. The school district had announced it would move National Teachers’ Academy students to join South Loop Elementary, where the students are mostly white. Chicago Public Schools has always promised, however, that students from closed schools would not be moved to a lower-scoring school.  In October, test scores at National Teachers Academy topped scores at South Loop. The judge’s decision, however, was decided on what the judge accepted as a civil rights violation.  The Sun-Times Lauren Fitzpatrick explains: “NTA families had organized nearly two years ago to loudly fight CPS’ plans to take over their building…. Their lawsuit alleged that CPS violated the rights of NTA students, who are mostly African-American, under the Illinois Civil Rights Act….”

In Chicago, as the school district has closed public schools, it has also allowed the number of charter schools rapidly to expand.  In another action on Monday of this week, the school district recommended closure of two charter schools deemed under-performing.  For the Sun-Times, Lauren Fitzpatrick adds: “Officials also denied applications for three new privately managed, publicly funded schools seeking to open, though all five operators can appeal to a state board that has overturned CPS’s decisions in the past… And the same school board was set Wednesday to consider applications for three new charter schools, amid plummeting enrollment and finances that have improved but are no means plentiful.”

What is clear is that Chicago’s experiment with “portfolio school reform” continues.  The new WBEZ history concludes: “In the 2019 mayoral race, candidates are already weighing in on school closings—and it’s obvious the city’s next mayor faces an under-enrollment crisis. Chicago has more under-enrolled schools today than it did in 2013, before it closed 50 underutilized schools. It’s been losing 10,000 children annually for the last several years.”

How would Chicago be different today if policy makers had thought about the people who would be effected by school closures and examined what have turned out to be the inevitable fiscal implications of continually opening charter schools to expand the portfolio of choices? I believe hindsight is clearer than the WBEZ reporters want to admit. Researchers at Roosevelt University have documented, for example, that the competition created by the rapid expansion of charter schools resulted in the closure of traditional public schools and also contributed to a financial crisis in the Chicago Public Schools.

In her new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing suggests additional considerations: “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… 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?” (pp. 158-159)