School Closings, Charter Schools, and Empty Buildings

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — October 17, 2012 3 min read
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Schools close. It’s part of the life cycle of a district: Population increases in one area and decreases in another, or, sometimes, overall enrollment drops. But school district predictions of large numbers of closures aimed at addressing both underenrollment and underperformance in cities like Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York have brought the issue to the forefront this school year.

The reasons behind the current enrollment drops (housing policy, charter schools?) are, in some cases, themselves contentious, and concern about the closings’ impact has led teachers, students, and community members to protest the upcoming rounds of closings. You can read about some of the issues at stake in this week’s edition of Education Week, and about one community that’s taken its case to the federal department of education here. (School turnarounds and other actions taken to dramatically “shake up” low-performing schools have also been garnering attention and some criticism recently.)

One consequence of closings that the EdWeek stories do not address this week is what happens to the physical buildings. An abandoned school building can be an eyesore at best, and, at worst, a site for criminal activity or a symbol of disinvestment and depopulation. Unsafe, empty school buildings in Philadelphia, for instance, were called out by the city’s controller last year.

Dealing with the building stock is often not an area of expertise for school districts, said Emily Dowdall, a senior associate at the Pew Research Group, which studied school closings in several cities in the wake of Philadelphia’s proposed restructuring. But as schools close, districts have to cultivate that knowledge. Dowdall pointed me to this website in Detroit, where the district advertises its building stock to potential developers, as an example of one approach to dealing with the buildings.

What should happen to those buildings and how they should be developed is not a simple question to answer, especially in districts where the enrollment drops in the public schools are tied to growth in the charter school sector. Here’s some local reporting on a manifestation of this debate from the Washington City Paper: The article describes school buildings sitting empty while a charter school searches for space. And here’s reporting from Milwaukee, where a state lawmaker is also speculating that the district is holding onto empty buildings in order to prevent charters from getting them. Charters in this situation sometimes find themselves in unconventional places not well-suited to be schools.

But giving buildings to charter operators is certainly not a politically easy move in many of these districts. Take Chicago. Earlier this week, former federal education official and current scholar and activist (and extremely prolific blogger) Diane Ravitch is in Chicago lamenting the impact of school closings, and making a clear connection between the rise of charters and the closing of public schools. The Chicago Tribune reported on some of the debate on this issue in that city, and quotes the Chicago Teachers’ Union’s president Karen Lewis saying closings will be the next big fight. Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, like Chicago, can also tie some of their dropping enrollment to large numbers of charter schools. Sometimes, a building is not just a building.

There’s clearly more to look into here. It will be illuminating to continue to track what happens to these buildings, and to see how many schools close this year. In the meantime, you can leave comments with any observations on the process of closings in your district (For example: Have they been transparent? Have the right decisions been made?), on what’s happened to some of these closed buildings, or on the charters-closings connection.

And—don’t miss this interview with Jon Lowenstein, who documented closings in Chicago for Education Week.

Photo: Discarded furniture and textbooks litter an abandoned classroom in the old Crispus Attucks School on Chicago’s South Side. The school was closed in 2008. --Jon Lowenstein/NOOR for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.