There's something romantic about the idea of a neighborhood public school. Not only is it the place where your child can walk or bike on a daily basis, it's where you can meet your neighbors, attend a school play and otherwise build a community.
But that neighborhood school—the school were a child goes as a matter of right—is withering in many American cities. Buffeted by declining enrollment, lagging performance and an education reform movement obsessed with choice, many traditional neighborhood-based public schools are being closed. Students are being shuffled farther away to other facilities or opting for charters (provided they strike it lucky with the lotteries).
In January, New York said it would shutter 17 schools; 117 were closed between 2003 and 2011. This year, Philadelphia unveiled plans to close 37 of its 242 schools. Detroit plans to shut down 28 of 100 schools. Baltimore identified 26 schools it could excise over a decade. Chicago is currently considering emptying 129 of its 681 schools. In Washington, D.C., 15 schools are slated to be closed over the next two years; 23 were closed in 2008.
For the school leaders proposing the closures, the moves reflect a basic reality: keeping half-empty buildings open drains resources that could be more effectively used on teachers and programs. But for the parents and activists opposed to the closures—some of whom traveled to D.C. in January to complain directly to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan—quantifying the impact is harder than a mere tallying of students or grades.
• • • • •
When a neighborhood-based public school closes, children must travel farther away, increasing commute times and complicating logistics. It also makes it harder for kids to get to class on foot or bike, which Danish researchers have found helps students concentrate better. According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, in 2009 only 35 percent of K-8 students who lived within a mile of school walked or biked, down from 89 percent in 1969.
Then there's the issue of safety. Violence between geographically diverse students merged into a single school is an issue in Chicago, and school officials recently agreed not to close any high schools for this very reason. In D.C., one middle school in the city's poorest area was removed from a closure list last month over concerns that crews with longstanding beefs would meet in the hallways.
Kids being uprooted from neighborhood schools are often the ones that can least handle the sudden change. "A lot of the children who are affected by this trend are already at risk because of poverty, drug abuse, violence, family upheaval, lack of healthcare," says Julianne Robertson King, a mother of four who lives in D.C.'s Ward 5, which is set to see four schools close this year. "These are people who have not been able to capitalize on the promise of America. When you remove one thing that they can count on... ."
According to researchers from the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute, if these students are sent to a similarly under-performing school, test scores will remain low. Moreover, students are more likely to jump around between schools after their first school is shuttered, and may stop attending school altogether.
There's also the physical evidence that's left behind. According to a report released this month by the Pew Charitable Trusts, school districts that have closed schools since 2005 often have trouble unloading buildings from their portfolio. Pew looked at 12 school districts and reported that 267 properties had been sold, leased or reused, while 327 remained vacant. These buildings, says the report, "cast a pall over their neighborhoods and can be costly to seal, maintain and insure." (A prior Pew report also cast doubt on the claim that districts were seeing substantial savings from closing schools.)
Even Andy Smarick, a fervent charter advocate who authored the provocative book The Urban School System of the Future: Applying Principles and Lessons of Chartering, recognizes that closing a neighborhood school can have negative and unintended consequences. "Even if it's low-performing, at least it's a stable institution and it's an indication that the government has at least some investment in that neighborhood," he says.
That's not to say Smarick and other charter and choice advocates are losing much sleep over districts closing chronically under-performing neighborhood schools. To them, good education is a basic right, and if one institution can't provide it, it should quickly be replaced by one that can. "You have to do closures of low-performing schools at the same time you're opening new schools," he says. "That way, you're ensuring there's a diversity of options families can choose from."
Critics charge that charter schools cannot adequately replace traditional neighborhood-based public schools. In D.C., for example, where 43 percent of public school students attend charter schools, admission is open to students from across the city. Last year a city task force opted against mandating that charter schools give neighborhood kids preference in the admissions process, saying that doing so could potentially limit access to high-quality schools. This has left some parents living next to high-performing charter schools that their children can't attend.
And some say not having a good neighborhood school makes a mockery of "choice" to begin with. "Choice for me is either sending my child on a bus ride away because [a school] offers the science program that he loves so much, or the school that's literally five minutes way that he can roll out of bed and walk to because he loves art," says Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for the New York-based Alliance for Quality Education, which opposed school closures. "What we're doing now is not choice, and our schools are just being closed left and right."
• • • • •
Maybe the idea of the urban neighborhood school has long been dead. But are parents willing to forgo proximity for performance?
Take D.C., which has one of the country's most robust set of educational options for parents—public schools, charter schools and federally funded vouchers for private schools. While the upcoming round of closures has provoked the usual complaints, the reality is that many students already opt for something other than their neighborhood public school—and charter enrollment is highest in some of the city's neediest neighborhoods.
In Ward 5, where Robertson King lives, 54 percent of students attend charter schools. Over the last school year, charter school enrollment was up 10 percent citywide, while public school enrollment barely jumped one percent. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, more than 100 school districts across the country now have at least 10 percent of students enrolled in charter schools. Additionally, five large school districts saw charter school enrollment increases averaging 17 percent over the 2011-12 school year: Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
In reality, though, the choice between neighborhood school and charter school is a false dichotomy. When given the chance, parents want their children to attend a high-performing school ... that's close to home. According to a report commissioned last year by D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, despite geographic disparities, two-thirds of all students attend schools within or adjacent to their neighborhood cluster. (For traditional public schools, 74 percent of students stayed within their neighborhood cluster; in charter schools, it was 57 percent.)
Nowhere is that more clear than in D.C.'s fast-changing Logan Circle neighborhood. There, parents banded together late last year to save nearby Garrison Elementary. Even though the school was under-enrolled and showed only middle-of-the-road test scores, parents promised to work with the school's new principal and court new residents' kids. The promise worked—last month D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson removed Garrison from the closure list.
"One of the biggest things is the community aspect of it," explains Garrison PTA President Ann McLeod. "You really meet more of your neighbors that way. It helps you enjoy your neighborhood more, you are more rooted in your neighborhood, you've got resources for your kids to have more friends who live around them."