School Closings: How Administrations Decide

Many parents and teachers in the nation's cities are disappointed by a long list of school closings. But when enrollment is low and costs are high, administrators face tough decisions. Host Michel Martin speaks to the Chancellor of Washington D.C.'s public schools, Kaya Henderson, about how school systems weigh these difficult choices.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to turn to a surprisingly emotional and difficult issue in education right now. It's the debate over closing schools. Cities across the country are talking about this, especially in areas where budgets are tight and there is pressure on educators to achieve better results.

Recently we heard from a reporter in Chicago and an activist in Philadelphia about discussions in those cities. There have been heated protests over closing schools there. Today we want to hear from a leader in another city, Washington, D.C., and we want to hear from someone who's on the front lines of making these difficult decisions.

Kaya Henderson is Washington, D.C.'s public schools chancellor. Earlier this year she released a list of 15 schools across the district - that's about one in 10 schools - that she slated for closing, and she is with us now to talk about the factors involved in a decision like that.

Thank you so much for joining us.

KAYA HENDERSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: How does a decision like this come about? I mean I know that you had been in leadership in this district before you were chancellor of the school system. Is this something that's actually discussed a lot within the system before it kind of surfaces as a public issue, something that's actually debated for quite some time? Could you just walk me through how you start talking about something like this?

HENDERSON: Sure. My favorite quote about this issue is from Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, who said nobody wakes up in the morning and wants to close schools, which I find to be the absolute truth. But in leadership, trying to do the difficult work of really providing our young people with an excellent education, you have to figure out whether you're expending your resources in the right way, and so in 2008 we closed 23 schools.

We have about 47,000 children now. Most districts my size have about 90 buildings. I have 123 buildings, but I have buildings that are severely underutilized. I have buildings where we're only occupying 27 percent of the building, and what it means is you are subsidizing very small schools at the expense of your larger schools, and even still you're not able to provide a full complement of services because every piece of overhead then costs more. And it might be OK if those places where we were overspending were seeing outsized results, but they weren't.

When you have a building that can hold 1,600 and you only have 400, you aren't able to offer art and music and PE or you're heavily subsidizing it. We want to give our kids a world class education, but there are, you know, critical masses that you need in order to make that happen. And, in fact, we have these school buildings that, every year, saw a decline in enrollment and, at some point, you just can't justify keeping schools open when families are actually making other choices.

MARTIN: Your predecessor as chancellor, Michelle Rhee, is a name that many people will know, but her decisions around closing schools were among those that were greeted explosively, emotionally and angrily by a lot of teachers, you know, parents and even students. I remember even hearing students talk about this around election time, saying to people things like, don't vote for her. She closed our school. Is it the what or is it the how that caused so much reaction?

HENDERSON: So I think the how matters tremendously. I was here in the district when we closed schools in 2008, and in fact, the list of schools proposed to close slipped out before we were ready to release and so there was this list floating around and people kind of had time to not actually hear the rationale around why we were proposing to close those schools and things just kind of snowballed and spiraled.

And I learned two things from that round of 2008 closures - besides I never want to be in that kind of a situation again. First, it was very clear to me that, in thinking about doing this, I wanted to engage the community. I do fundamentally believe that some of the best ideas are out there on the streets, in our school buildings, in our barber shops and beauty salons, and I wanted to allow that kind of input to influence our decision.

The second thing that I realized is that when you close a school, you leave a hole in the community. Schools are meeting places. Schools are places where people vote. And, when we closed schools in 2008, we left empty buildings without clear reuse plans and so we came out to the community and said, we'll show you the population maps that we use. We'll show you the building utilization rates. We'll show you the enrollment over time. We'll show you achievement over time. We shared all of the data that we used to make the decision and then we invited the community to come and talk to us, not scream at us in a town hall meeting where only a few voices get heard, but a really collaborative conversation.

MARTIN: But let me ask you about that. Is there really any instance in which people in the community changed your mind and said, we really should not close this school?

HENDERSON: Oh, I mean, absolutely. In fact, we were proposing to close 20 schools and we ended up only closing 15 schools.

MARTIN: Why do you think people get so angry about this?

HENDERSON: I think nostalgia is one reason why. Our identity is tied to where we grew up. But I think people are also angry, because here in D.C., there are a number of forces at play that have contributed to why we have to close schools. One, for example, is the fact that we have a very large out-of-boundary lottery system where, if you don't like your neighborhood school, you can actually apply to go to another school. And we have lots of parents who have exercised that option, leaving some of our neighborhood schools, really, abandoned.

And then, when we have to close the neighborhood schools, they feel like it's kind of a betrayal of trust. Part of that is our fault. We haven't kept the quality of our neighborhood schools up and I think we have to really reinvest, but I think, as you see neighborhoods changing, there are all kinds of issues that come along with that.

Another reason or another significant impact is the advent of charter schools in the District of Columbia. Fifteen years ago, there was a very robust charter law that took effect. In over 15 years, we've gone from having 100 percent of the children in public schooling in DCPS to having only about 57 percent. Forty-three percent of the young people, public school aged children, are in charters.

As families choose charter schools, again, that means that they are not choosing traditional public schools and so I can't keep the number of neighborhood schools open when families are actually voting with their feet.

MARTIN: I'm interested in how you see your job as the leader of the traditional public schools at a time when, whether people like it or not, the policy of the city leadership has been that you can choose where to send your child, wherever he or she can get in. How do you see your role in this right now?

HENDERSON: This is very personal for me. As a person who came from a family of a disadvantaged background, the thing that actually moved us out of poverty and solidly into the middle class was a good public education. We had great neighborhood schools. I walked to an arts-integrated elementary school on the south side of Mount Vernon, New York. And when it got really good, they actually moved it to the other side of town. But I say that to say that we can have great neighborhood schools, that in fact public education is a game changer. And for so many of our children whose parents don't get into the lottery or whose parents can't fill out a charter school application, I see my job as creating an amazing educational experience for them that they don't have to apply for, that they don't have to take a lottery to get into.

In order to do that, I have to reverse what has happened over the last 40 years here, which is flight, neglect, abandonment of the traditional public school system. We have held very low expectations and made excuses because our young people - many of our young people - live in poverty or come to school with a second language or come to school with issues. And what I would say to you is, we don't expect from these young people the things that you expect from your kid or I expect from my kid.

And I'm going to build a school system where these children have the same experiences as your kid or any middle class kid in America. I want these young people to be able to go abroad in the middle school years or in the high school years because, if you're going to be competitive in college, you have to not only take a foreign language from elementary school on - oh, which is one of the benefits that elementary schools will see as a result of these closings - but you have to have cultural exposure. It means that you've got to play an instrument. It means that you have to have athletics. It means that you have to have rigorous academic material.

And, in fact, we've dumbed down our material because we've made excuses about what our children can do. Our children can absolutely do anything. We see it happening every single day when they have great teachers, when we're able to engage parents in the appropriate way and when we're able to make schools places where children like to go. That's my job.

MARTIN: Kaya Henderson is the chancellor of D.C.'s public schools. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Chancellor Henderson, I hope this will be our first conversation, not our only. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HENDERSON: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, when director Antoine Fuqua was casting his latest action-packed thriller, one name came right to mind.

ANTOINE FUQUA: I just thought, I need strong individuals and, naturally, my instinct took me right to Angela.

MARTIN: Angela Bassett, that is. The two of them join us to talk about the new film, "Olympus Has Fallen." That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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