Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, January 18, 2013

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.

Right: Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST - Jeff Neiman of North Potomac nabs one of the last packages of cheese at a nearly empty food bin at Magruder's Tuesday in Gaithersburg, Md.  

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

Anyway, another way of looking at competitive advantage -- or not -- and how you can add value -- or not -- to your "business" processes has to do with the food service in DC Public Schools.

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.

Right: a dining table set at 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.

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At 7:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

all of these new young families moving into the city will have nowhere to send their kids to school so they might have to move out to the Sprawl in order to find affordable free options where their kids will not be subject to violence- just as the city is gaining population and recovering they shutter schools- this is not good long term thinking especially if we cannot re-use the school buildings further down the road as schools once again- selling all of these buildings and making them gyms or condos is ridiculous. This is going to be a huge problem.

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I think the point that you need a neighborhood school to have a neighborhood is critical.

And from what I can tell, the schools being closed aren't in thriving neighborhoods. That claim is subject to a lot of crosschecks, of course, but what is emerging is the wealthy parts of the city will have public schools in 20 years, and everyone else gets private schools.

As I've said before, there is a certain value is having the "friends" generations take their spawn to the suburbs and incur the costs there. I think this is a big difference between urban theory and where Richard is.

(It goes back to arguments in the 1980s that Mayor Voinivich in Cleveland was investing too much in downtown and not enough in neighborhoods. 30 years later who is right?

I think a large part is older activists -- and I'll identify them as closer to Richard's POV - are being swamped by Friends Generation Urbanists (FGU?) and what is being thrown out is the joy of a small town in the city.

I really fear we are losing sight of the joy or urban life is the density of connections, not the density of buildings.

At 10:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

not only are the DC schools shrinking- but the federal government is rapidly closing up shop in DC- the FBI, BEP, the BRAC- all of this points to a total dispersal of the functions of the nations capitol- which no longer will have a reason for existence if this is allowed to continue unabated. Why this is still happening when the city has become more popular and less dangerous is mysterious. This is a very serious matter- and despite liberal glee at the FBI leaving the city- this would amount to some 10,000 jobs pouring out of DC.

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Matthew Hall said...

At last, DC makes a positive contribution to the nation, instead of using everyone else's money to create absurd arguments meant to manipulate people. America with independent publicly funded schools and without the politicizing of school boards and mandatory curriculums will be clearly better. DC has shown us how to get there. Bring it on!

At 11:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


This post contains a lot of thoughtful and important stuff. Some of it is sniping that certainly deserves its own post (cheating) but here seems irrelevant.

On your main points:
Neighborhood schools are a great ideal. It would be wonderful if we can get to the point where we can have functioning neighborhood schools all over the city. There are plenty of functioning neighborhood schools in the city that remain open. So what's your criticism here? It is obvious that neighborhood schools would be nice, but how is it productive to have a neighborhood school that has terrible outcomes? Everyone knows that concentrated poverty has a huge effect on school outcomes, so how is it helpful to keep schools around that are hemorrhaging students to charter options?

You said:
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.)
Absolutely correct that this would be an advantage. And the school district puts a huge amount of effort into attracting and retaining good teachers and incentivizing those teachers to work in disadvantaged schools. People seem to talk big about "innovation" but have few concrete ideas as to what innovative ideas can improve a neighborhood school filled with students who have the deck stacked against them from day one.

As for the food services contract, it would appear that there is more to this firing than just the issue over contracting vs in-house. A lot of the innovative things you suggest here could likely be done with a contractor in place, and deserve someone championing those changes. Also, the Post article you link takes a swipe at DCPS losing money on meals while MoCo and Fairfax make money. Wow, I can't imagine why the school district with a far more poverty-stricken student base, serving way more free and reduced lunches, not to mention breakfasts, to students, might end up paying more (rather than making money) for its meal services! Then again I don't expect much thinking from reporters on things involving numbers given my interactions with them.

I really do like your food service idea, I'd be interested to know what you think would help rebuild neighborhood schools.

At 1:07 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

MLD -- because I have jury duty I'm not likely to be able to do for awhile the kind of piece about "rebuilding neighborhood schools" that I have intended to do since Dec.

I read Paul Tough's book on Harlem Childrens Zone. I still need to read books on MCPS, Chicago (, and probably at least one of the publications of the urban education reform study commissioned by the NSF in the 1990s.

.... anyway, I am basically proposing a kind of war on poverty full scale approach in Wards 7 and 8. Where you integrate multiple programs (health, social services, etc.) + schooling and family programs including income support, changing how the provision of schooling is organized, including, probably "year round schooling" complemented by "cooperative education programs maybe starting in 8th grade, plus all the other stuff like IB, plus an introduction to college program for 8th graders ( etc.

Lots of stuff.

Tho provides a high quality education system for the poorest neighborhoods.

(And over time the ROI would be considerable, presuming that health and social services expenditures would go down over time as more people are employed, healthier, etc.)

For "average" neighborhoods like mine, you just need different kinds of school programs, marketing, and other supports than what are currently available.

The thing in the article in the Post about the neighborhoods coming together to market the school. That kind of stuff needed to be done 10 years ago, for every school.

Figure out strengths and opportunities for each school and then execute it. (E.g., like my idea for a set of arts oriented schools to complement the "arts district" on H Street. That's a 10 year old idea of mine...)

Including the branding, positioning, and marketing piece along the lines of the concepts in Leavitt's _Marketing Imagination_.

And the W3 schools are fine as they are (mostly).

2. The alternative is for DCPS to just completely offload K-6 education to the charter schools and focus on jr and sr. high schools, not that they have been super successful at that.

3. Another element of improvement is to build on and expand from success. Success in W3 schools should be able to be extended outward into W4 and W2. Success in W6 schools should be able to be extended outward into parts of W5 and even across the river. Etc.

10 years ago I suggested that the Cap. Hill Cluster Schools be expanded on the north and south. In effect, that has happened with Brent, which is now a successful school. It wasn't 10 years ago. Etc.

At 1:08 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

MLD -- you're right about a high quality meals program still being able to be contracted out. In fact that's what Bon Appetit is, a contractor, for for profits and nonprofits that want high quality on-campus and/or in-building food service operations.

At 1:34 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...,0,7925371,print.story

At 5:31 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

charlie -- while it's pretty damn expensive to educate kids, at some point you can't fob all of them off on the suburbs, because families contribute vitality to the city too, kids help keep schools as civic anchors viable, etc. There's a happy medium there somewhere.

But neighborhoods that are all young or old people become less vital. E.g., W4 got kind of old but fortunately, as people moved out they were replaced by younger households. FWIW, on my block, of the "new" households (5 of 24) which are as much as 7 years old, 4 have kids.

2. obviously, you're right about the schools that are being closed not being in thriving neighborhoods. We have to fix that and to do so they need some civic anchors.

But my response, whenever I get to writing about it, is obviously a lot more theoretical in terms of that Harlem Childrens Zone kind of effort--way more probably than "Promise Neighborhoods" and for the entire ward(s)--would involve multiple govt. agencies, not just schools.

At 6:07 PM, Anonymous Matthew Hall said...

We shouldn't be using schools to serve other social purposes no matter how desirable. We should be using other institutions to serve schools. Schools succeed when they are free to pursue their purposes for being and not pressed into service for things beyond them, such as "civic anchors" or "neighborhoods." These romantic visions should not be allowed to interfere with schools. Less is more in education and in most things in life.

At 6:29 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wtf? this isn't romantic at all. It's about the framework of civic assets and community building.

A kind of deconstructionist context-less framework is completely inappropriate for the consideration of this and other urban issues.

E.g., look at the very first sentence of the header of the blog. It's all about form and how form is created, maintained, and extended.

At 5:19 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

actually, I'll reconsider your point. It's right that schools shouldn't be forced to do all kinds of stuff unrelated to their mission.

but the point I make isn't unrelated.

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