By Alex Williams
Site Leader, Clara Byrd Baker Elementary School
In January, the Baltimore city school board voted to close four schools at the end of the academic year. The most controversial of these closings was that of Westside Elementary School – a school in close proximity of last April’s rioting. Baltimore city schools CEO Gregory Thornton recommended the closings of the four schools, citing issues with “poor performance or climate, low enrollment or underutilized buildings.” Delegate Antonio Hayes lead the effort against the closing of Westside Elementary School in particular, emphasizing what Westside provided to the community. According to Hayes, “There [are] two major institutions in the Penn North community, that’s Westside Elementary School and a very thriving drug treatment center.” From Hayes perspective, the loss of an essential community institution is not serving those in West Baltimore well. Alison Perkins-Cohen, the executive director of New Initiatives for Baltimore City Public Schools, sees things in a more positive light. Her view is that the closure of Westside is not a loss, but a gain because Westside will get a new school soon through the Baltimore City Public Schools Construction and Revitalization Act, passed in 2013. While this eventual outcome may seem bright, a cohort of Baltimore students is unlikely to benefit.
The main issue with school closure comes from the effects of student mobility. Research has demonstrated that it can take years for mobile students to recover academically. An additional consideration is the quality of the schools which take in the new students may be compromised due to the influx of students which would increase class sizes in some cases. Students may also have difficulty adapting to a new school’s unique climate, which may precipitate experiences of victimization or bullying. In the long-run the effect may be positive as Alison Perkins-Cohen suggests - but at what cost to the students who must shuffle from school to school while their new school is being built?
When examining outcomes from an achievement perspective, some research suggests that closing down low-performing schools leads to positive outcomes. Unfortunately, this research suffers from external validity. Each city has its own climate, history, students, and demographics. Closing down low-performing, underutilized schools is well-intentioned, but beyond looking at the costs in terms of achievement or education quality, we must also consider the implications for the community. The impacts of schools are not limited to merely what they provide from an educational standpoint. Jessica Shiller, an urban education professor at Towson University makes this distinction: “If you think about it as just a school, then yes it does make sense to close them. Maintaining buildings is hugely expensive, and a city like Baltimore doesn’t have the money to support expenses that are unnecessary. But if you think about it from an urban planning perspective, and ask what a school is to a neighborhood, then it’s a very different conversation.” Shiller also points out that schools are where many students “access food, counseling, after-school programming, and even health care.” The impact of these roles is more ambiguous, but cannot be discounted.
The decision to close a school is controversial – no matter the eventual verdict. Cities have to weigh the costs and benefits to this decision carefully. While academic achievement is a primary goal of schools, school boards must not underestimate the role of a school from a holistic, community perspective.