When school closures occur, communications about the transition often do not always leave communities feeling assured that the closure will result in better educational experiences for their children or their children’s teachers. Oftentimes, it seems that the school closure process does not present a concrete set of proposals to adequately address the most fundamental problems schools face. If closing the schools will just lead to a replacement school facing a similar set of problems, it can make the initial closure seem unnecessary. For many community members, it doesn’t seem reasonable to close a school if there is not a high probability that a new school will be substantively better than its predecessor. Also, the lingering conversation about whether or not a school will be closed often adds significant stress to those who have to wait in limbo as the fate of their school is debated.
Schools in jeopardy of being closed are typically already facing significant challenges such as low enrollment, faculty shortages, and declining academic performance. When the challenges these schools face are insufficiently addressed or ignored while decision-makers debate the school’s future, those inside the school can feel frustrated about the inaction and negligence of the district. For many community members, if it is obvious that a school should be closed, the district choosing to leave it open during the deliberation process seems careless.
As one former DPS teacher put it, “I would like to see them actually make some changes that would benefit this school versus just doing what they need to do to keep it afloat every year. They were in this same situation last year and the previous year, it just wasn’t so public. I feel like they keep opening every year but not really making any changes. If anything, it’s getting a little worse in my opinion. There’s no psychologist or counselor on staff, they’re severely understaffed here to the point where teachers are having to stretch too thin. And me looking at their faces, I remember how it felt to be an overworked full-time teacher and it affects how you treat students when you’re exhausted.”
At other times it appears that schools are improved just enough to avoid their imminent closures, but are unsuccessful in ensuring that the school is meeting the needs of students, faculty, and the broader community. One metro area parent put it this way, “It would be awesome to see in upcoming years, instead of them just barely skirting to save this school every year, like, to actually put funding. They keep saving these historic schools but not really doing anything to help them survive. Like this school has no after-school sports or activities and you have a lot of kids that could benefit from stuff like that.”
Community members also wanted to have more logistics on the front end of the school closure process about what the closure would entail and how the school was proposed to be rehabilitated during its closure. A DPS alum noted, for instance, “I would think one of the things that would be done is that if they’re choosing to close the school what does the reopening timeline look like and what’s the changes that are going to be implemented? Because you can’t close a school and not bring it back. How long is that timeline and when we come back, how does that place revamp, and at that time what are we doing that’s going to be beneficial to the students? How are we providing resources to the new school? How is that going to benefit us?”
While some are of the mind that if a district closes a school there should be an expectation that it is eventually re-opened, others feel as though districts make decisions like permanent closure is not a problem. For many community members schools are not run-of-the-mill services that can be swapped out or removed without consequence. One community member noted that it seems that people with decision-making power do not properly disentangle schools from other types of public works projects like maintaining infrastructure. As this parent put it, “A lot of times they act as if the education system is sort of like building roads; but it’s people, it’s made of human beings. I think that’s often lost in thinking, like, it’s this inanimate object.” Identifying the impact of school closure with the perspective of human relationships as a focal point seemed to be an important element of rolling out a school closure plan.
One community member in Northeast Denver noted that their experience with the closure of Manual High School highlighted how important it is for there to be a clearly stated understanding of how a school closure will bring about the betterment of a school. Similar to other highschools in the metro area, Manual High School has been subject to a variety of treatments, including closure and re-opening, which were supposed to provide sustainable solutions to the problems the school faced. Other high schools in the metro area, like Montbello High School have also implemented a variety of strategies to change the school’s trajectory and have it meet the district’s expectations in terms of outcomes. As this alum noted, “Montbello high school, for example, was closed for so many reasons and now it’s open again so I think they can have many many reasons on why they want to close but at the end of the day like seeing how they act and change their mind it’s like those reasons don’t matter anymore.” She noted that schools can become scapegoats for larger problems affecting the performance of a schoollike gentrification or inadequate funding.
Community members also would appreciate a more detailed and nuanced approach to addressing how school closures will affect the other schools in the area. Schools are unique. They have distinct populations and different cultures, and after closure, simply relocating students from the school that is being closed to the school that is the closest in geographic proximity is not always appropriate or easy. For instance, one alum noted that as she remembered, when a Spanish-language-only high school in northwest Denver closed, many of those students enrolled at North High School. Being a student at North High School herself at the time, she noted that the school appeared unprepared for the sudden increase in Spanish speaking students. These sudden changes in enrollment after the smaller school was shut down led to significant challenges for students, and educators. As she described it, “It was a high school of kids that only spoke Spanish, so when it got closed down all the students had to accommodate the Spanish-speaking students because the teachers didn’t. A lot of teachers at North were white; they didn’t speak Spanish. Now it’s up to the students to teach the other students and if students are teaching students, not to say students are bad teachers, but what is the quality of education they’re getting now.”
For many community members, conversations around school closures, especially when they are due to low enrollment, must address how a new school can better attract and retain families to ensure that they then remain open. One student suggested that a school could improve its chances to remain open by improving its metrics and enticing others to be a part of its community. Having been a student at Whittier, he had become privy to the reasons he had heard his school was a candidate for closure and narrowed in on those concerns to present a plan to keep his school open. As he put it, “What we need to do is probably have more kids and make our school have a higher rating than all the other schools so when people see our school on top of the rankings they’re going to want their child to be there so they can get a better education.”
For him, keeping the school open would require students to step their game up and focus nearly exclusively on raising their test scores and demonstrating that they deserved to stay open through academic achievement. Community members have pointed out that often school evaluation gets limited exclusively to standardized metrics which are suspect in their ability to account for the successes and challenges of a school. One young student questioned whether it would simply be better to move to a permanent solution of there being fewer schools in the metro area in total in order to prevent the ability of schools to consistently be closed and reopened. As he put it, “There are a lot of schools around here but also some are really far, some are closer and not as good so it would be better if the education was just in one place instead of multiple places.”
A DPS parent noted that schools would see more success in upping their enrollment if they offered the types of programs parents were looking for. Parents have diverse needs and expectations when selecting a school for their child and being able to find schools which meet their needs could be quite attractive. It also seems that privileging community members input on the programs offered by a school on the front end can help alleviate the search for better suited opportunities somewhere else.One parent for instance said, “I just think you’ve got to make sure you’re surveying the community, the parents, the students, and the teachers of that school and then one thing that can be done is bringing in a program. If you have low attendance you can say, well we’re going to have arts integration in our school or we’re gonna have second language courses in our school. Something that is like wow we want more people coming to this school because look at what they’re doing. I know a lot of schools have been doing that with technology but I would like to see schools that have more to do with arts or imagine having a social justice school. I just think if we can be creative and the community is allowed to have some time and power in the decision and to problem solve with the staff and students ideas of getting more kids to their school and keep it open then that would be positive for everybody.”
Others pointed to producing sustained efforts to attract and recruit leadership and educators as a necessary step to ensure that schools come back in a better position than when they were closed. An alum noted, “Let’s say we have a really good principal that’s in this area of town. Why don’t we pay that [guy] a chunk load of money to come into this hard school? Making it an attractive job from the standpoint of monetary value so he could use his expertise and skill and his leadership to make a change in a school that really needs something like that. Will it cost more? Yes. But ultimately if we want change we have to start doing things differently.” One alum noted that she believes that without ensuring that all schools have access to adequate and proportionately reasonable resources, schools that are better resourced will continue to draw higher enrollments and be better situated to recruit and develop students and educators. A parent in the metro area also addressed the challenges presented by an imbalance of resources, saying, “There are certain schools that have everything, and it’s because their neighborhood can raise a lot of money for that school and there are other schools that have nothing so until they level the playing field somewhat in education we’re going to keep having people ‘oh I’m going to move to this school this school this school and we’ll lose that sense of community.”
School closure in and of itself is not a guarantee that educational experiences for students, faculty and community members will improve. In fact, the proposition that school closure is the appropriate strategy for schools dealing with problems like low school enrollment and declining academic performance seems to be fraught with complications as well. As with many issues discussed in education, it appears that the inclusion of community members on the front end of the decision-making process can ensure that the district and the school address concerns in ways that are desired, sustainable and justifiable.