School closings are uncomfortable. Where schools are severely under-enrolled because of population shifts, or where schools have become too expensive to maintain (usually because of poor decision making on deferred maintenance issues) - it makes sense to go through the wrenching school closing process. There are costs to the district related to keeping severely under-enrolled schools open, and costs to the students that attend them. Under-enrollment is an expensive problem because not only does any open school have fixed costs to remain open (a principal, a custodian, utility bills, etc.), but students attending the under-enrolled school often do not benefit from the same investment in services and academic opportunities offered at more populous schools. Memphis City Schools has been going through the process of figuring out how to manage its wide range of property holdings for the last few years. I can attest that attending a roach-infested school has its drawbacks. This recommendation from Dr. Cash should be viewed to at least some extent as a continuation of that work. So there are (some) good reasons to close schools.
There are also bad reasons to close schools. Saving money by increasing class sizes (at other schools) is one of them. Poor academic performance is another - turn around models usually just don't work in a sustainable way.
In doing the TPC's work, The Boston Consulting Group was at least clear about its process, though considerably less clear about its "list". The consultants stated that their intention was to replicate the district process - taking into account enrollment, the FCI (facilities condition index - high numbers are bad), and academic performance. BCG started with enrollment - setting the threshold at 80% to be considered under-enrolled - then also required any of all of: a declining enrollment trend over 5 years, below average academic performance, poor FCI, and receiving school availability. From page 109: "There are 89 schools with under 80% utilization of which 70 are in Memphis and 19 are in Shelby County."
The availability of a nearby school to receive students from the closing school is a critical factor, and the sole reason why none of the 19 under-enrolled SCS schools is being considered for possible closure.
After all of their analysis, BCG must have come up with a list of schools (or pairs of schools, one closing, one receiving) that should, in its view, be considered for closure. The TPC and BCG were very clear that it was not the TPC's role to recommend particular schools for closure - that it should be the Board's prerogative to use to the TPC's work in order to come up with the list. However, it seems to me that there must have been an actual, physical list on the TPC side of things. In the minutes from the April 26 meeting of the TPC's Administrative Organization Committee, Dr. Cash asked for the list and BCG consultant Reggie Gilyard agreed to provide a list of 40 schools. It is unclear whether that list was ever provided but, in any event, it was not made public at that time. (Anyone up for a FOIA request?) [Dec. 20 update: the document was eventually released as part of a School Board agenda - I discussed it here, and republished the document here.]
In the text leading up to Recommendation #113, BCG listed other cities where significant school closures have taken place, with a little background about each. BCG failed to mention, however, its very controversial work in Philadelphia, where they recommended closing between 29 and 57 schools over the next 5 years. They started work in Philadelphia after they were up to their elbows in Memphis, but some of the work was concurrent. Perhaps we should be grateful they let us off easy with only 21?
So that's how BCG did the TPC's work, which brings us to how Dr. Cash has done his. In my initial post on this topic, I flagged Dr. Cash's recommendation to close Gordon Elementary, a school operating at over 90% capacity. Based on BCG's analysis, Gordon Elementary would not have been on their list because it is in their sweet spot of 85-90% target enrollment. Gordon Elementary would likely also not have been considered as a receiving school in order to prevent it from becoming oversubscribed. Dr. Cash will need to give a strong explanation as to why Gordon Elementary has made such an exclusive list - enrollment is clearly not his driving consideration. Closing such a school would bring up the enrollment of nearby schools who receive the students, so I wonder if the nearby schools are the beneficiary of some protection for some reason.
In contrast, Humes Middle is at 16.9% capacity. It is serving less than one fifth of the students it was designed to serve. In the April 26 minutes from the Administrative Organization Committee, also referenced above, Dr. Cash explained that some middle schools were only serving 7th and 8th grades, and that elementary schools were still in the process of realigning from K-6 to K-5, with the district adding 6th grade to the middle schools. But 16.9%?!
My next question is why three of the schools on this list are well over 50% enrollment when there are so many schools that are under-enrolled by half. I remain concerned about any school closings, and the 20 school recommendation just seemed egregious. Six, not so much - especially given the large population shifts out of the western portions of Memphis and out to the eastern portions of Memphis. And while I'm relieved at Dr. Cash's decision to propose substantially fewer closures than the TPC, his closures are still in addition to the ASD's 10 closures. And the question of who to close is just as important as whether to close. I assumed that the first consideration would be current enrollment levels. Since that is clearly not the case, I'm very interested in Dr. Cash's explanation for how he ended up with these six.
More red flags:
- Norris Elementary, with enrollment at 56.2% is also on the ASD's list of 14 possible takeover schools. We're still waiting on the ASD's list of ten schools it will close and reopen - to be released in mid-December. It seems likely that Norris Elementary School will not be in operation next year, but it remains possible that a school will be operating there next year. Very odd, however, that even though the ASD's list has been public for weeks and they've already started their public meetings, that the district would still include a possible ASD school on a closure list. Odd.
- Also on the ASD possible list is Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School, which is listed a receiving school (one of two, the other being Carnes Elementary) for Gordon Elementary School students. Gordon Elementary is the school with very high enrollment. Is the district considering substantially increasing enrollment at a school that could be taken in by the ASD, thereby losing more money in ADA funding than it would otherwise? Odd.
- And this gem: "Students at Humes . . . would be enrolled at Gestalt Community, a charter school that will be part of the new state-operated Achievement School District." My understanding of the ASD process is that no decisions have yet been made about which schools will be selected for takeover, or which schools will be assigned to which pre-selected charter organizations. In any event, Humes is not on the ASD's list. Is the district forcing a school onto the ASD's list? Has there already been an ASD decision on what area Gestalt Community will serve, in order that it will definitely serve Humes' students? Does this mean that the ASD will be taking over more than its planned 10 schools? Or it will just be gaining more than 10 schools' worth of kids? Odd. Very odd.
- Bill Dries' article on this says that Gordon Elementary has an ASD school within the school. A prior article explains that Gestalt Community has added sixth grade this year within the Gordon Elementary building, and will add 7th and 8th grades in future years. We'll need some clarification about Dr. Cash's intentions. Will he just close Gordon Elementary and leave the building to Gestalt Community to operate Gordon School of Arts and Sciences (Middle School)? Or does he plan to shutter the building? Would the state allow him to shutter the building even while there's an ASD school in it? I did not follow Gestalt's Gordon School development, but it seems to not be following the ASD's turnaround model, and instead appears to be operating as a new charter school. Odd.
Looking at the map with the overlays, it's clear just how much of Memphis is under assault with school closures for next year. I understand that the ASD doesn't consider the schools on their list to be school closures, but when teachers are let go and students have to re-enroll, that's not exactly continuous operation. It's a good thing that it's only 16 schools and not 31, but 16 is still a lot.
That's 16 schools' worth of MCS teachers who will be looking for new jobs for 2013-14. These 16 schools are neighborhood schools, many with strong neighborhood ties and traditions that will be severed as the district and the state "realign" schools in Memphis. It seems safe to assume that these schools are in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. The impact of significant changes to these anchors in the community - whether by closure or by takeover - cannot be overestimated in terms of the neighborhood or in terms of the children. It is therefore all the more important that any closures be done for the right reasons, as the result of a transparent process. I don't agree with the ASD's reasons, and I just haven't yet heard Dr. Cash's. Thursday night's meeting will be interesting. Closing just 3 schools last year was gut-wrenching.
I have some ambivalence about the district closures, but I do advocate for a clear process with clear results, with a transparent application. We're not there yet. As I said, Thursday's meeting will be interesting. Hope to see you there.