What We Talk About When We Talk About School Closures

As Bob Dylan never said, "the demographics, they are a' changing." What does that mean for schools? What is the right number for how many schools a community needs, or can afford?
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In recent days I have been struck by stories involving two districts that are closing schools.

Providence, R.I. and Detroit, Mich. are planning to close a total of 48 schools over the next few weeks. While there are ten times more schools on the closure list in Detroit (44) than in Providence (4), no one can say that the Motor City's cuts are eleven times more painful.

Closing even one school has a deep emotional impact on a community.

As a school designer and planner, I have to appreciate that every school building will, at some point in time, outlive their useful life. We try, as best we can, to make that point in time as far in the future as possible, but the years have a habit of creeping up on us.

We say that we build schools to last 50 years or more; 50 years from now is the year 2061. That would mean that schools built today would have to be designed to satisfy the educational needs of the great grandchildren of this year's freshman class.

We need to admit that, at some point in time, all of our school buildings will come to the end of their useful life. Okay, let me say it: every school at some point in time will need to close, make way for new facilities, or undergo a major reconfiguration and remodel. The question is when -- not if -- buildings outlive their usefulness.

Recently, my wife and I became "empty nesters." If there are some new parents among my readers you might say that you are sad for us; all you parents with high school students are probably congratulating us; and all other "empty nesters" can empathize with us. But the issue that we are facing is not so much that our children have moved away, rather "what do we do with our house?"

Just having this conversation is bittersweet. This is the house where we raised our children; we did homework in the living room, took prom pictures in the basement, and rebuilt my son's first car in the garage. But it has outlived its useful life. I never would have called it a big house but now it is too big; it is not broken but it has things that need to be fixed; it is not too far to drive to but it is nowhere near the Metro.

We have come to that point when the house that we made into a home really does not meet our family needs. Which brings me back to schools.

When you listen to the lamentations of community members in Providence, they want to know why these particular four schools have been recommended for closure. Why should Flynn, Windmill, Messer and Messer Annex school communities be forced to move?

The School Superintendent, Thomas Brady said that the schools "were picked for their age, condition, student performance and proximity to other schools. Flynn Elementary, for example, needs nearly $15 million in renovations and is within one mile of six other elementary schools."

This sounds reasonable enough but the Messer and Messer Annex schools have been used for teaching the children of Providence for nearly 120 years. The buildings were constructed in the 1890s! How many of us live in houses that old?

But schools are like homes and these venerable old buildings are connected to countless families. There are powerful emotional threads in the schools that tug at the hearts of children, parents, grandparents.

"It becomes a very emotional issue," Schools Superintendent Thomas Brady said.

No kidding. But when do the facility conditions, the financial implications overshadow these "very emotional issues"? I have been talking a lot about listening to your buildings, so lets talk about listening to your community.

A recent study said that the city of Detroit has hit the lowest population since 1910. The study said that Detroit looses the equivalent of one person every 23 minutes. When you consider that one out of every six people in the U.S. is a school age child, that means that Detroit is losing one school age child every 2 hours and 20 minutes. Extrapolating this data a little further we find that Detroit is losing the equivalent of two High School student body populations every school year!

At this rate, every high school in Detroit would be empty in 8 years. Of course, not every child leaving is a high school age student, or enrolled in Detroit Public Schools, but even if these numbers are half right it is a staggering statistic.

What we do know for certain is that the school district was built for 300,000 students but two-thirds of that population is now gone.

And in Providence, according to the Providence School District Master Facilities Plan,

"The enrollment in the Providence Public School District (PPSD) has declined from a high of 27,900 in 2003 to 23,484 in 2009 or approximately 16% in six years. This has resulted in excess capacity in the system. The challenge of balancing the need for the community to be served by educational facilities in close proximity vs. the operational capacity of the system to provide appropriate programming in these facilities is what the update to the Facilities Master Plan seeks to address."

As Bob Dylan never said, "the demographics, they are a' changing." What does that mean for schools? What is the right number for how many schools a community needs, or can afford?

When a school gets to one half of the capacity -- should we close it? When less than one third of the students live within one half of a mile -- should we close it? When a school's repair costs more than one half of its replacement cost -- should we close it?

Or do we never close it?

Douglas MacArthur said that "old generals never die, they just fade away." Is that how we feel about old schools? The Detroit Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, facing that kind of enrollment decline and a mandate from the Governor to close half the city's schools proposed what amounts to a neighborhood takeover of schools. Charter schools will be selected to partner with communities to run their neighborhood schools. That's quite a shift -- and to repeat the wisdom of Superintendent Brady; "it becomes a very emotional issue."

In no way do I intend to belittle the very real and serious issues that comes with these decisions. The Providence decision could lead to the firing of almost 40 teachers. The Detroit decision leaves the city still wrestling with hundreds of millions of dollars of legacy debt. There are no easy answers -- only more difficult questions.

What we need is a framework for conducting a serious conversation about these decisions. They will still be "emotional." But maybe, just maybe, they can also be sensible.

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