Shrinking to oblivion: managing the demise of the DC Public School system
For awhile I've been meaning to write a piece on the DC Public Schools, even before the pretty solid allegations of the support of a cheating culture with regard to test results, about how the school system is being managed to oblivion.
Yesterday, the school system announced they are closing 15 schools ("DC Public Schools closure list" from the Post), from an original list of 20, even though most reports (such as the one from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, see "Report: Savings marginal after DC Public Schools closes schools" from the Examiner) argue that the amount of money that will allegedly be saved, will be significantly less than what is reported.
When your size of your market (of school aged children) is relatively static, the addition of new competitors (charter schools) competing for the same number of customers means that the less competitive actors in the market will significantly lose market share.
So I understand why the DC Public School system has more capacity than demand, and why it would be reasonable for them to close schools.
On the other hand, at a certain point shrinkage is counterproductive and you run the serious danger of reaching two negative critical mass tipping points:
1. Neighborhoods no longer possess elements fundamental to community cohesion and the civic public realm--neighborhood schools--because all of them have been closed.
2. The school system declines to nothingness.
In a market economy, most organizations don't succeed by shrinking
There are some exceptions, especially when it's related to focusing your efforts on your core competencies and competitive advantages, and off-loading lines of business where you have little to contribute that is unique or special or worth paying a premium for--that was what Jack Welch did when he ran General Electric and made the decision to remain present in businesses only where they can be #1 or #2 and have the ability to add significant value to the sector in terms of innovation and added value.
What does the demise of DCPS look like?
Otherwise, businesses/organizations that continue to shrink eventually fail (e.g., the announcement about the Magruders supermarket group, "Magruder's Era Ends As Area Stores Close" from WUSA-TV) unless they reform through innovation. (Reform doesn't necessarily mean innovation, it just means change. DC public schools may be changing, but not through innovation.)
One of the competitive advantages, theoretically, of DCPS, would be to run high quality neighborhood schools that preference enrollment by students from the neighborhood. (Of course, if you think the neighborhood has nothing to offer and you want to get out, that isn't an advantage.)
And I have written a few pieces about how urban planning needs to refocus on the neighborhood and maintaining neighborhood schools as a fundamental building block of community planning. See "Rethinking community planning around maintaining neighborhood civic assets and anchors."
Charter schools by contrast are city-wide schools, with enrollment open to anyone living in the city. So the schools are by definition disconnected from the neighborhoods in which they are located.
It's possible, I suppose, for the public school system to "rightsize" to a point where they can produce excellence as the standard outcome.
But I think instead the school system is being managed for its demise.
Another example: food in schools as "a job" versus as an element of competitive advantage
The other day the Post reported, in "DC schools food director leaves job," that the director of the school food service program is resigning because he wanted to in-source food service, while the Chancellor, Kaya Henderson, says that preparing meals isn't a core competency of the school system. From the article:
Mills wanted to stop outsourcing meals preparation to Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality and bring food service operations in-house, Bruske said. Henderson is reluctant to make such a move, saying that the school system has experts in teaching and learning, not serving meals.
Mills’s departure comes less than a month after a D.C. Council hearing at which lawmakers excoriated the school system’s management over its money-losing contract with Chartwells, which provides meals to almost all city schools.
Yet the reality is that you can completely flip your thinking about food, its quality, foodways, and nutrition and health as a fundamental element of the health of schoolchildren, the ability to educate them, and their ability to be educated, especially because so many of DCPS' students are impoverished with limited access to food at home, limited experience eating family means, etc.
DCPS does "school breakfast" because so many children aren't getting fed at home. Etc.
Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House in Savannah, Georgia. The restaurant is renowned for how they serve "family meals." Groups of people, usually unrelated, seat together and eat.
Imagine a DCPS school where the quality of the meals served at school is a competitive advantage. (Not unlike how many corporations have high quality food service operations in their buildings and campuses, to help keep employees satisfied and so that they don't leave the building/campus as much and work more. See "A quick-read nutrition label? It’s out there" from the Post, about the Bon Appetit food service company.)
And where meals are served family style--not from a cafeteria line--as part of the teaching process, as part of building community within the school, as an element of the socialization process, etc. ("Sitting down for a family meal may promote healthier eating" from CBS).
Ideally kids could do this at home, but when they can't, why not at the school? From the article:
The family that eats together stays healthy together, according to a new study.
Even just sitting down for a meal once or twice a week as a family can increase a child's fruit and vegetable intake close to the recommended five servings a day.
"Even if it's just one family meal a week, when children eat together with parents or older siblings they learn about eating. Watching the way their parents or siblings eat and the different types of food they eat is pivotal in creating their own food habits and preferences," Janet Cade, a professor of nutritional epidemiology and public health at the University of Leed's School of Food Science and Nutrition, said in a press release. Cade supervised the study.
Sadly, many of the school system's "reform" initiatives are similarly circumscribed and hardly innovative.
Which by the way is something that a "principal leadership development" graduate degree program ought to be studying...
It's no wonder that the school system continues to decline, precipitously.