01/04/2012 - Over the past decade, cities around the country have faced the challenge of closing down public schools. It’s a difficult process that affects students, parents and neighborhoods. Dwindling enrollment, mounting budget pressures, deteriorating or outdated facilities and poor academic performance have prompted the decisions. The Chicago school district closed 44 schools between 2001 and 2009. Detroit closed 59 schools and Kansas City, Mo., shut down 29 in 2009 and 2010. Now the School District of Philadelphia is preparing for the painful process. It has recommended the closing of nine schools; a decision on the proposed shutterings will be made early in 2012.
Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative set out to better understand what is in store for the district by studying the experiences of six other cities, including Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City, in addition to Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. Each of these districts has shuttered more than 20 buildings in the past several years—a total of 197 schools.
The study, Closing Public Schools in Philadelphia: Lessons from Six Urban Districts, found that the money saved by closing schools, at least in the short run, has been relatively small in the context of big-city school-district budgets: well under $1 million per school.
The report also found that selling or leasing surplus school buildings tends to be difficult. At least 200 such properties stand vacant in the six cities, including 92 in Detroit.
Although there is limited research on the effects of large-school closings on students, academic studies show that achievement often falls during the final months of a closing school’s existence but recovers within a year.
No matter how well closings are executed, many parents and community leaders are likely to be upset over the shutting down of a school or the options offered for the displaced students. The report analyzed the approaches to closings taken in the six cities and found that the likelihood of public acceptance, though not necessarily enthusiasm, went up when school officials presented the case for downsizing as early as possible; hired outside experts to help guide the process; established clear, quantifiable criteria for deciding which schools to close; showed a willingness to adjust the announced list of targeted schools when faced with compelling arguments; and decided on the plan with a single vote rather than votes on each school.
The full study is at www.pewtrusts.org/philaresearch.