Public School Closures: Loss And Opportunity

Posted by Ariel H. Bierbaum on January 26, 2015

In many people’s minds, a neighborhood is not complete without a public school, as they not only hold the key to the next generation’s success, but also represent an open and welcoming space for civic interaction.

Practitioners, policymakers, and researchers alike have based their work on this vision. Local school districts and community partners have focused efforts to build community schools. Federal policies like Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods emphasize schools as key institutions in the work of place-based poverty alleviation. A vast array of research has established links between public education and housing and transportation policy, regional economies, political and social capital-building, and health outcomes. This work all suggests that schools serve multifold purposes—not merely as vehicles to deliver education, but also as important social, political, and physical infrastructure in neighborhoods and cities.

So what happens when a neighborhood school closes?

This is a question that many communities across the country are facing today. As part of their portfolio of education policies, many large urban school districts—including Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., Milwaukee, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., to name a few—have been closing schools en masse. This wave of urban school closures is often framed as a consequence of continued declines in public education funding and education reform efforts that promote strategies like charter schools and vouchers. Demographic changes—particularly the decline in school-aged populations and population shifts across neighborhoods—also shape decisions about school closures.

These public school closures affect not only parents and students, but also fundamentally transform the social and physical fabric of neighborhoods and have ripple effects across cities. Initial research on school closures has focused more narrowly, however, on school district decision-making processes and protests of school closure; the fiscal impacts and reuses of the school buildings; and academic outcomes for displaced students.

For the past six months, I’ve been researching the neighborhood impacts of closure in Philadelphia, where in 2012, the school district closed almost ten percent of its traditional public schools. This decision displaced nearly 9,000 predominantly low-income students of color. In this oft-described “city of neighborhoods,” neighborhood schools represent a great paradox. On the one hand, many parents choose to send their children out of the neighborhood or to charter schools for what they consider to be better educational opportunities, contributing to under-enrollment and underfunding of their neighborhood schools. On the other hand, when these same schools are threatened with closure (by school district leaders citing data on under-enrollment and underfunding), neighborhood residents, parents, and city officials have come out in force, arguing that neighborhood schools serve as vital community anchors and are necessary for neighborhood revitalization. Students, parents, and neighbors have grieved for their closed schools, in one neighborhood going so far as to build a memorial shrine.

While still early in my investigation, I have found that the experience of residents in neighborhoods with closed schools varies. The strength of the neighborhood—measured by metrics like collective efficacy and market strength—as well as the links that the school had to the community, seem to affect the experience. Many local residents acknowledge that schools were not well functioning and for some, students were not necessarily a welcome presence in the neighborhood. At the same time, there are concerns about the lack of high quality education options nearby and safe travel to schools further afield. Others are very focused on the reuse of buildings, stressing the importance of returning these civic buildings to community-serving uses such as community centers or other schools. Still other residents express concern about parking and fears about accelerating gentrification through condominium development.

My preliminary findings highlight and reaffirm three important points about the nexus of education and neighborhoods:

  1. For local residents, schools serve—both functionally and symbolically—not only educational purposes but also social and community purposes. When they close, communities are concerned about what will fill that void of civic and community interaction.
  2. Schools are physical infrastructure—in some cases taking up full city blocks. People describe the buildings as “massive” or “hulking,” and express concern that the negative impact of an empty school building can have comparably massive negative impact as a source of blight.
  3. Schools are tied to the ever-shifting dynamics of neighborhood change. In communities where gentrification pressures are heightened, school buildings sell more quickly, exacerbating tensions and fears of displacement. In neighborhoods of deep poverty, school buildings sit empty—a reminder of the systematic and cumulative disinvestment in these communities.

What do these things mean for community development?

My research suggests that closed schools present interesting opportunities for the community development field. The reuse of school buildings will require the kinds of cross-sector and comprehensive approach inherent in community development practice. Community development practitioners are uniquely positioned to manage processes and plans that balance the needs of community with the realities of markets. Closures also create a new imperative for the field: as massive pieces of infrastructure, these closed schools represent catalytic sites in neighborhoods. If community development practitioners do not seize on that catalytic force, others will, perhaps with less attention to the needs of the local community.

Almost unilaterally, my research has affirmed that the decision to close schools is painful and experienced as a deep loss for the students, parents, teachers, and residents. However, once schools are closed, perhaps there is an opportunity for community development practice to return the buildings to productive use in a way that benefits existing residents and support broader goals of equitable development across cities.

(Photo credit: Abandoned School by Mark Strozier, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

About the author more »

Ariel H. Bierbaum has spent the past decade working at the intersection of urban planning and public education. She is currently pursuing her PhD in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. She also serves as adjunct faculty at the University of San Francisco and is a Visiting Scholar in the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Ariel on Twitter at @arielabd.

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