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.

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

School closure and consolidation planning needs to focus on integration planning at the outset as a separate process

This past entry, "National Community Planning Month: Schools as neighborhood anchors," discusses how I think schools fail to embrace a planning approach to what they do, and how communities fail to prioritize elementary schools as key civic assets anchoring thriving neighborhoods.

I think it's pretty common that most school districts don't have robust planning functions.  

Sure they have demographic enrollment planning functions, but big issues like the use of special curricula (beyond "arts" and STEM) as a way to recruit and retain students (eg language immersion, IB, math), how to deal with the competition from charter and private schools, how to maintain strong connections between neighborhoods and schools, especially as the number of families drops, how to help schools market, etc. are planning initiatives not really taken up in systematic ways.

Obviously it's not a new finding that high quality schools track to housing values etc. So these kinds of planning decisions can really matter to communities.

Salt Lake.  A friend of mine here is a school teacher, and we've talked for many years about school "planning" issues, I've shared with her past writings, etc.  In short Salt Lake school "planning" is not unlike school "planning" in DC in that few urban/school planners seem to be on the staff of the school district.

Eg a few months back I went to a high school rebuilding meeting (the site shares the square on which Sugar House Park lies, and I am on the board of the park), and I was appalled that the leader of the school system "planning" initiative was a well experienced teacher/administrator, but with zero formal planning background--they contract out a lot to architectural firms, but miss many issues that go beyond facilities.  That was typical of DC too. 

Anyway, Salt Lake has to close some elementary schools, because enrollment is dropping commensurate with the demographic changes common to center cities--more residents, many no children households, smaller households with fewer children--so that even as population increases, school enrollment decreases.  

-- Population and Boundary Study, Salt Lake Ciy Schools

This is different from the issue of how many traditionally urban school districts are closing schools in part because of enrollment issues, but also over quality issues, with the idea that the schools that close aren't performing academically, and that students will benefit by re-enrolling in better schools.

There are many good writings about that, how students don't necessarily perform better when schools are closed and they relocate, and the impacts on neighborhoods.  

This makes sense to me, based on the chapter of "use value of place," in Urban Fortunes: Towards a Political Economy of Place. A lot is lost when neighborhood institutions shut, and relationships are disturbed and redistributed.

-- Should Failing Schools be Closed? What the Research Shows, Manhattan Institute

Which is why I argue that sometimes, maybe it's better to invest in existing schools and keep them open, despite smaller enrollments, as a kind of equity planning measure.

-- "One way in which community planning is completely backwards," 2011
-- "Missing the most important point about Clifton School closure in Fairfax County," 2011
-- "Rethinking community planning around maintaining neighborhood civic assets and anchors," 2011
-- "The bilingual Key Elementary School in Arlington County as another example of the "upsidedownness" of community planning," 2019

-- "Social urbanism and equity planning as a way to address crime, violence, and persistent poverty: (not in) DC," 2021
-- "An outline for integrated equity planning: concepts and programs," 2017
-- "Equity planning: an update," 2020

The Salt Lake school system has been called wasteful by the state government because they haven't been proactive in closing schools, and simultaneously a number of school districts in the region have been closing schools as the population shifts from east to west (surprisingly Salt Lake is an outlier, here the issue isn't east to west migration, but the increase of households without children, especially in the center city).

Salt Lake schools face more competition than a typical school district in other states, because the State of Utah has open enrollment across school district borders--although it doesn't seem to affect the city that much.  Acording to demographic data, it captures most of the students living within the city.

(Interestingly, the high schools don't face closure--in fact they are planning to rebuild two of the three--because they get a lot of in-bound students from nearby school districts, a benefit of the state open enrollment policy.)

On the other hand, the school charter movement isn't strong in Utah, despite the best efforts of the State Legislature (which face it, compared to political efforts elsewhere, aren't very "best"--if they tried hard they could destroy public schools, but probably in general the average person of means is fine with the public schools, so there isn't great pressure to wreck them, other than particularly highly motivated interest groups), but there are some charter schools in the city nonetheless, which capture students, as well as a number of well regarded religious and private schools (some for profit!), that capture many students as well.

1.  School versus school competition to remain open

My friend has made the point that as the school district has identified schools facing closure, based on 12 criteria, what happens is that this pits school communities against each other to "save our school," creating winners and losers and animus even though in the end, the student populations and parents will be joined together, regardless of which particular school is closed.

Note that the dissertation "Where Is the CommUNITY? A Qualitative Case Study of a School Closure in an Urban School District" evaluating the closure of a declared underperforming school in Colorado illustrates the rancor that results when the process isn't developed in a collaborative way.

My friend suggests that the process be organized in a collaborative way.  It hasn't been but the school district has organized the process into four "areas," that don't necessarily map to city council districts, but in a more natural pattern of how the schools, neighborhoods, and communities interact.

2.  Integration planning should be the top priority resulting in robust highly functioning "receiving" schools

I went with her to a public meeting on this process a couple weeks ago, and one of the consultants mentioned that it usually takes two to four years for schools and neighborhoods to reach a new equilibrium after schools are closed and student populations consolidated.

-- "Chicago promised students would do better after closing 50 schools. That didn’t happen," Chicago Sun-Times
-- "School Closings: Challenges for Students, Communities, and Litigators," American Bar Association

I immediately thought that integration planning should be going on now, not specific to any one school, but to the process of combining schools so that students, families, teachers, and administrators can combine and work together in the best, substantive, and "quickest" possible ways, resulting in thriving schools that don't take four years to recover and stabilize. 

Starting the transition planning process in January or February, once final decisions have been made on what schools to close, seems very late in the process and too circumscribed in terms of time.

Fortunately, an article, "Surviving a School Closing," from Educational Leadership, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, describing the closure of a school in a school district in Upstate New York, and all the measures to unite the students and families by the "receiving school" with the support of the "closing school," lays out a robust framework for student and classroom consolidation.

Of course such practice is complicated by politics, but also labor contracts with teachers and other personnel, and that sense of winners and losers, In the article, they really tried to move away from the idea of winning and losing.

I remember when I was a child in Pontiac Schools, which had bus bombings in an attempt to ward off integration a year before, and they had us sixth graders at the end of the year visit the junior high schools where we would be going in the fall.

I think that a lot of schools do this kind of pre year introduction as students move from elementary to middle/junior school.  If not they should.

-- Transitioning From Elementary to Middle School, University of Hawai'i

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At 3:58 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Lot of interesting summer programs in Camden that offer some models for thinking about summer school as an integration opportunity for dealing with school consolidation.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I think this is more about troubled areas. But some of the concepts are transferable.

McKeesport community greets and motivates students on their first day school as part of 'The Village' program

When Keith Pfeffercorn pulled up to McKeesport High School on Monday morning, he was shocked to see a group of community members warmly greeting students as they headed in for the first day of school.

Throughout the morning, calls of “Welcome back. Have a good year,” rang out across the Eden Park Boulevard school parking lot from some volunteers while others waited for students to exit school buses before greeting them with a smile and a wave.

The initiative was part of the new mentorship program “The Village,” a partnership between McKeesport, Clairton and Duquesne school districts that gives residents the chance to work with students to make a difference in their communities.

The Village, which was created over the summer, will allow community members to support students throughout the school day and permit children to build relationships with an adult from outside the school setting. The goal is to connect students with people who know and understand the communities they live in.

Once the school year gets started, the goal is to have two tiers of volunteers. The first tier will consist of residents who stand outside and greet kids as they enter and leave school buildings. Volunteers will aim to identify tension among students and alert the principal to potentially defuse a future issue.

First tier volunteers can also work as lunch buddies. They will hang out in lunchrooms, interacting with students and playing games.

The second tier will consist of people who have proper clearances and training to speak one-on-one with students. They will then point the child to a skilled or licensed professional in the school building who will take over.

The districts will require volunteers to undergo training exercises, one of which will give community members basic knowledge about staff in the school buildings and who they should talk to for different situations. Volunteers will also take mental health and first aid training.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Seattle schools face a big budget deficit as enrollment declines. They are running a public process on what priorities should be.

"These school resources mean the most to Seattle families'


five community meetings hosted by Seattle Public Schools to learn what a “well-resourced school” means to families.

The meetings come at a time when SPS is facing a budget crunch due to declining enrollment and other financial pressures. While Superintendent Brent Jones said the conversations weren’t a proxy for discussions about school closures, it’s likely some consolidation of the district’s 106 school buildings could be in play for the 2024-25 school year.

During the five in-person meetings, people sat at small tables in school lunchrooms with a facilitator and answered three questions: What are your favorite things about your school buildings? How do we make resources and services at each school stronger? What kinds of programs do you and your student value most?

People wrote down answers, posted them on a board, and talked among themselves. The need for more music and art classes was a chief concern for families. Ensuring every student has access to enrichment programs was also top of the list.

“Equity in schools means different things, not the same things, so I want to better understand what different families need, what communities need, what schools need,” said Swearingin, whose children go to Whittier Elementary School. Swearingin said she attended “so that I can push my school to be an advocate for the entire district.”

Parents and guardians who had children in older buildings spoke about how modern facilities would be more beneficial for learning, said school board Vice President Liza Rankin, who went to all five in-person meetings. Having more green space and places for students to exercise was top of mind, Rankin said.

Another consistent thread was ensuring buildings were safe and welcoming, said Rocky Torres, assistant superintendent of support services. For example, “If there’s murals or artwork, how is it representative of the kids in that community?”

Community members also spoke about the importance of extracurricular activities being what students want versus what adults think they want, Torres said. Although there were some consistencies, each meeting “has its own little flair or difference in things they are talking about.”

Although the community meetings were not about school closures, Rankin said, “they also weren’t not about that.” It’s too soon to know if or which Seattle schools will close, but these conversations were the first steps in defining what offerings and programs are important to families, she said.

Staffing at schools is allocated by how many students are enrolled, Jones said, which means smaller schools might not be able to receive all the services and resources that are desired. For example, John Hay Elementary was hit hard by enrollment declines and lost an assistant principal and reading specialist.

“But if you combine schools you might be able to do that,” Jones said. “You might also be able to have certain types of program offerings. There are some benefits that we can project by having slightly larger schools.”

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

More on Salt Lake process.

What’s next for Salt Lake City’s 7 schools being studied for potential closure?

What are the five categories the schools will be studied under?
Here are the categories and the measures officials will consider.

Enrollment and residential population: This includes enrollment data, such as the total number of students, the number of resident students, number of students who live in within a one-mile radius, and projected enrollment trends from both resident students and overall students.

Proximity and availability of neighborhood schools: Student safety factors, like safe walking routes, will be weighed, along with studying how to reduce the number of students crossing major and busy streets. The district will consider what what the transportation options will be for students who will need to transfer if a school closes.

This category also includes environmental factors — like pipelines and high voltage power lines that have been installed near schools, and community and neighborhood security — such as how close a school is to others, and the “desire to provide walkable alternatives to students and families, to the extent possible, to support neighborhood identity along with the sense of community.”

Building and learning environment quality: The district will consider the remaining useful life of buildings; unique features in classrooms, such as technological capabilities; the physical condition and capacity of the building; and repair and potential maintenance needs.

Strategic placement of districtwide programs for equity and access: This involves weighing how moving a special program may affect students in that program; the learning environments and facilities created in a school for special programs, “particularly special education programs,” and the availability of “quality spaces in the current school or in an alternative setting.”

And lastly, community input and stakeholder feedback will be a “primary consideration,” he said.

“We are applying their cares and concerns, as applicable, to all schools on the list for further study,” Conley read. “In this way we balance the feedback we are receiving regarding one school to apply to all schools, even those where parents have not been able to voice their concerns at board meetings or in other planned meetings.”

At 12:22 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

"Does Massachusetts need a 'nuclear option' for academic recovery?" Boston Globe.

Seven bold ideas:

-- Start a statewide tutoring army
-- Longer school days, years
-- Do more for recent grads who need help
-- Pay teachers more
-- Overhaul reading instruction
-- Personalized plans for every student
-- Don’t try to fix everything,

Examining the root causes of why so many kids are missing class is also crucial, advocates
said. These can include lack of connection to peers and teachers, anxiety about school, or obligations like work, or caring for young siblings or sick family members.

“We have to understand the causes of chronic absence in order to talk about the solutions,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of the national Attendance Works initiative.

Education historian Jack Schneider, director of the Center for Educational Policy at UMass Amherst, disagrees with the focus on standardized test scores and said teachers are already overextended, and communities should do more to support students through, say, summer and after-school programming and weekend enrichment.

”For me,” Schneider said, “the question is what then can we do to make sure that the
supports that some students have access to outside of school are more evenly experienced
by all students?”

... Struggling districts would then be wise to narrow their own focus, Kane added. A smart area
to invest in would be courses like algebra that kids need to take, and pass, to get to more
advanced coursework. Student schedules could allow for a double dose of the subject so
they can keep pushing ahead while also getting time to practice what they should’ve already learned. This targeted approach would be more effective than casting a wide net, Kane said.

D’Entremont agreed that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work to close achievement gaps. “When we do the same thing for everyone, those gaps don’t close,” he said. “We need to
tailor and target tutoring for those most in need.”

At 12:16 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The hardest job in education: Convincing parents to send their kids to a San Francisco public school


Declining enrollment can set off a downward spiral. For every student who leaves SFUSD, the district eventually receives approximately $14,650 less, using a conservative estimate of state funds for the 2022–23 school year. When considering all state and federal funds that year, the district stood to lose as much as $21,170 a child. Over time, less money translates to fewer adults to teach classes, clean bathrooms, help manage emotions and otherwise make a district’s schools calm and effective. It also means fewer language programs, robotics labs and other enrichment opportunities that parents increasingly perceive as necessary. That, in turn, can lead to fewer families signing up — and even less money.

It’s why Koehler is trying everything she can to retain and recruit students in the face of myriad complications, from racism to game theory, and why educators and policymakers elsewhere ought to care whether she and her staff of 24 succeed.

Family and friends are most influential in shaping people’s attitudes about schools, research specific to SFUSD shows.

Her team started by modernizing marketing efforts, like going digital with preschool outreach, producing a video about each school, and rebooting the annual Enrollment Fair, a day when principals and PTA presidents sit behind more than 100 folding tables. Parents used to push strollers through the throngs to grab a handout and snippet of conversation; now, schools play videos and offer up QR codes too.

For two years, SFUSD has also worked with digital marketing companies. One “positive impression campaign” included social media posts pushed out by the San Francisco Public Library and the Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families. Images feature photos of smiling students alongside the names of the SFUSD schools and colleges they attended: For example, “Jazmine – Flynn Elementary School – Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 – O’Connell High School – Stanford University.” In addition to online ads, the district has purchased radio spots and light-pole ads. It’s mailed postcards.

Koehler would like to increase the current outlay of about $10,000 a year, but it’s hard to spend on recruitment when instruction remains underfunded, even if increased enrollment would more than offset the cost. Especially since, at some point, marketing becomes futile. With a finite number of kids in the city, initiatives to increase market share become “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Dee likes to say. (Private school-board members and admissions directors in San Francisco are also expressing alarm at population declines.)

At 12:21 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Willie Brown Jr. Middle School, SF

In 2015, in the southeast part of the city, SFUSD opened Willie Brown Middle School, a state-of-the-art facility that includes a wellness center, a library, a kitchen, a performing arts space, a computer lab, a maker space, a biotech lab, a health center, and a rainwater garden, in addition to light-filled classrooms. With small class sizes, bamboo cabinets, few staff vacancies, and furniture outfitted with wheels, it could easily be a private school.

At 12:48 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Choosing Schools in Changing Places: Examining School Enrollment in Gentrifying Neighborhoods

3/20, Annual Review of Sociology

School choice expansion in recent decades has weakened the strong link between neighborhoods and schools created under a strict residence-based school assignment system, decoupling residential and school enrollment decisions for some families. Recent work suggests that the neighborhood-school link is weakening the most in neighborhoods experiencing gentrification. Using a novel combination of individual, school, and neighborhood data that link children to both assigned and enrolled schools, this study examines family, school, and neighborhood factors that shape whether parents enroll in the assigned local school. I find that parents are more likely to opt out of neighborhood schools in gentrifying neighborhoods compared with non-gentrifying neighborhoods when nearby choice options are available. Recent movers to gentrifying neighborhoods bypass local schools more compared with parents who have lived in the neighborhood longer. Results have implications for thinking about neighborhood-school linkages in an era of school choice and urban change.

At 12:49 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

3 Myths About White Parents and School Choice

Myth #1: White parents always choose the whitest and wealthiest school option

Myth #2: White parents want only academically selective schools

Myth #3: White parents choose schools without regard for the impact of their choices on others


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