Closing schools: How K12 leaders can promise value and equity

Rarely are demographic breakdowns of students or communities a part of the discussions when leaders consider closing schools. Academic impacts are also often absent from the debate, one expert asserts.

Lower enrollment and looming budget deficits are forcing leaders at Pittsburgh Public Schools to consider closing schools in the coming years. The district, which operates more than 50 schools, faces a $28 million shortfall next year while it serves about 19,000 students in buildings with the capacity to accommodate more than twice that number, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports.

“We really need to look at our footprint,” Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Chief Financial Officer Ronald Joseph said, according to the Gazette. “We are operating more buildings than we should, which means that our resources are spread out over all those buildings and we also have to maintain those buildings.”

In San Antonio, charter schools are moving in as districts prepare to shut down buildings, according to the nonprofit San Antonio Report. Edgewood ISD leaders, who told the website that more than 1,000 students within its boundaries attend schools in the IDEA charter system, are exploring how to reduce facilities costs by closing multiple sites.

“Charters have changed the game,” Edgewood Superintendent Superintendent Eduardo Hernández told the San Antonio Report. “The bottom line is we have to do as well as they do.”

Closing schools equitably

Closing schools is, of course, often a turbulent experience for communities, families and students. But leaders can take some steps to reduce distress with an eye toward equity, says Carrie Hahnel, a senior associate partner for policy and evaluation at the education research nonprofit, Bellwether.

School closings often hit Black students and other students of color the hardest, says Hahnel, who co-authored a recent guide for K12 leaders who want to make school closure decisions more fairly. “That’s not to say inequities can be avoided entirely, but those harms can be reduced or managed if equity is part of the process,” she adds.

One of the main causes of inequitable closures is that districts default to fiscal considerations as the sole driver of closures and ignore the demographic impacts. Rarely are ethnic or racial breakdowns of students or communities a part of the discussions when leaders list potential closures. Academic impacts are also often absent from the debate, Hahnel notes.

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Administrators can make the closure process more inclusive and transparent by assuring impacted families that there will benefits to switching schools. “Offer something of value to displaced students,” she explains. “If a school site is going to be closed, ensure that the student and families who will be relocated have meaningful academic opportunities elsewhere and are not just shuffled to the next closest school geographically.”

Closings should prompt leaders to examine “broader attendance zone considerations,” such as which academic and extracurricular programs are offered—or not offered—at different high schools. Ultimately, administrators must engage with communities in recognizing the checkered history of closing schools in historically marginalized neighborhoods.

“Closure decisions are coming on top of a long history of segregation and systemic disinvestment,” she concludes. “To treat this as a demographic accident is disingenuous to the history of those neighborhoods and communities.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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