School closings: trauma or treatment?


Traditional public schools are closings by the hundreds in cities large and small across the country. New Orleans, Detroit, Washington, DC, Chicago, and Philadelphia have either closed numerous schools or, like Rochester, plan to do so in the near future.

The closings have often been used as an opportunity to replace traditional schools with public charter schools. In other instances, the closed schools are replaced by schools that are repackaged and rebranded as new with the help of corporate funders and foundations.

There are only a handful of reasons why schools close: natural disasters and mechanical breakdowns, declining enrollment, and deplorably low performance are usually cited. But often what these schools share most in common is that they serve large concentrations of poor urban students.

Some cities are reporting student achievement gains from closing traditional schools and opening charters. New Orleans and Detroit are on the verge of having more charter schools than traditional public schools, and in New Orleans, parents are reportedly pleased with the transition.

But in other cities, there is heightened concern about the closings. Here in Rochester, for example, Superintendent Bolgen Vargas's proposed school closings are a serious issue for residents and parents in the 19th Ward neighborhood. They have consistently opposed closing School 16 because it would reduce the number of neighborhood schools in the southwest area of the city. And based on past school closings, they question whether it really improves student performance.

Katie Osgood, a blogger and special education teacher in a Chicago psychiatric hospital, says school reforms can have unintended consequences.

“Almost every child I work with from the neighborhoods targeted for the brunt of school reforms has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder," she says.

Her students who require special education intervention and services frequently get shuffled around as neighborhood schools close, charter schools push them out, and the receiving schools struggle to come up to speed on the students’ problems.

She stresses how socioeconomic integration among students matters. What we don’t want, she says, are school systems that shrink in size and are inadvertently left with a more intensified concentration of poor, low-performing students: what some educators call economic apartheid.

But many education reformers seem willing to take that risk, Osgood says.