School closures

Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) is considering the closure of 10 elementary schools which are well below capacity due to declining enrollment, in order to save money on facilities and staff. While I certainly sympathize with the need to reduce costs in the face of declining enrollment, I think that SCUSD is failing to consider several factors in making this decision. Let me say that many school districts are facing the same challenge; SCUSD is just the current example, and I am not trying to pick on them. I live within SCUSD but work in another school district; I do not have children, but have been an education professional for much of the last 39 years.

There have been a number of articles in the local media about the closures, but the SacBee article on Sunday, January 27 provides a level of detail and addresses several of the challenges.

Why is this a transportation issue? Closure of these schools will eliminate 10 neighborhood schools, which children can by and large now walk or bicycle to. True, many of the students don’t, but they could. In most cases they will not be able to walk and bike to their new school, due to increased distance and the need to cross busy arterial streets. The change will therefore greatly increase the rate of parents driving their children to school at the remaining schools. More congestion and air pollution, and less safety for the students who do walk and bike. I will clearly state two premises:

  1. Right-sized neighborhood schools have a strong social value that must be weighed along with other considerations.
  2. All children should be able to walk and bike to school, at least at the elementary level.

The district has based its closure criteria on enrollment versus capacity of the school campuses. Four of the schools have a capacity over 1000! This is ridiculous! How did an elementary school campus ever get to be this big? I have been a substitute teacher off and on for 19 years, and I have never worked at a school over 700 students that I considered to be functional. At all of the larger schools, many of the students were falling through the cracks. There were serious dysfunctions that were not being addressed. This of course is anecdotal evidence; I don’t have research to state that this is usually true. But for the district to now be using this super-sizing as a criteria for closure is, I think, grossly unfair. It was not the students or families that asked for these super-sized campuses. The district created these campuses in order to save money. One principal per 1000 students sounds better to bean counters than one principal per 500 students. So what is a right-sized campus? I think about 560 students for a K-5 school. This allows at about three classes at each grade level (90 x 6), which allows placement of students in classrooms where they will be successful. K-8 schools, which I also support, would be up to 810 students (90 x 9).

I have worked at a number of schools which were about this size, and were very successful. They may not have had a high income level, they may have had old buildings and old technology, they may not have had all the support services that larger schools do, but they had a strong sense of community that allowed nearly all students to succeed. In a right-sized school with professional and caring staff, no student will fall through the cracks. Small schools are places where students learn to be citizens of their community, and in my mind this weighs just as heavily as academic performance, and much higher than expense considerations.

I am not familiar with all the schools on the closure list, but I can stay that at several of them, the inflated capacities are due to portable classrooms. Portable classrooms have a limited life span, much shorter than bricks and mortar buildings. At best, they last 30 years, but many of them are worn out, unhealthy, and energy wasteful long before 30 years. If portables were removed from the equation, as they must be removed from the campuses in the not too distant future, I suspect the capacity numbers would change a great deal. I would suggest that the district get rid of portables first and then consider closures.

If the capacity of these schools were a right-sized 560, some schools would still be so far below capacity that it might make sense to close them.

Sadly, my neighborhood school, Washington, might still be closed even with revised criteria. I live in midtown, and though I work elsewhere, I care deeply about the livability of this area. It is true that the population of midtown is weighted towards twenty-somethings who do not yet have kids, or have kids not yet of school age. It was true in the past that many people moved out to the suburbs when they had kids. However, I think very few people any longer believe the mythology that suburbs are safer, or cheaper, or more livable, than urban areas, and I think many of these young people will be choosing to stay in midtown. I hope so, because I want the energy and creativity of these families, here where I live. But if Washington is closed, they will have to go a long distance to another school. William Land ES and Theodore Judah ES will be those schools, but they are each about two miles away from Washington (David Lubin is also about two miles, but was not listed by the district, so I’m assuming it is already close to capacity). Parents will be driving those students. Sad.

So, what is the solution? I think that SCUSD, and all other districts faced with declining enrollment, must invest in developing models for running smaller, right-sized schools of about 560 students. There would be some hard decisions to make about what sorts of student services a school of that size can offer, and in some cases it would be necessary that a particular school not offer every service and therefore not be able to serve some students within their neighborhood. But students with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) which have identified bus transportation as an appropriate service, are already being bused, and may be bused to other schools which would specialize in the services needed. I am not suggesting segregation of these students, who would and should be attending schools with all other students, but rather, sometimes it is necessary to specialize in order to meet the needs of both the students and the community.

What about excess capacity? When it is portable classrooms, I think it should just be removed in phases, and with few exceptions, it would all be gone within 10 years. When it is old, energy inefficient brick and mortar buildings, the district should invest in energy upgrades to greatly reduce energy expenses. In a few cases, some buildings on an active campus might be mothballed until either funds are available for upgrades or future enrollment increases warrant re-opening them. There are already a lot of essentially mothballed classrooms, used for storage or by a small number of students for a small part of the day, but they aren’t obvious because they are scattered throughout a campus rather than gathered into one wing. Yes, upgrades are expensive, and often lead to other necessary code and maintenance work, but it is the right thing to do. Old school buildings are a core resource of each neighborhood, and they deserve to be kept up to date with ongoing improvements to the buildings and the classrooms.

For more information about preserving and using historical schools, the best place to start is the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Community-Centered Schools pages, and these will lead you to other resources.

To summarize:

  1. SCUSD should consider right-sized schools (about 560 students) as the goal, and should not be trying to fill or close super-sized campuses.
  2. Neighborhood schools engender student and community success.
  3. All students have the right to walk and bike to school.
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About Dan Allison

Dan Allison is the Safe Routes to School Coordinator for San Juan USD, Sacramento area. Dan dances and backpacks, as much as possible.
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4 Responses to School closures

  1. Ryan Sharpe says:

    As a recent midtown homebuyer *and* a new midtown father-to-be, the Washington closure worries me about how much SCUSD actually looked forward to what midtown’s demographics will be five or ten years from now, when a lot more “hip, young” midtown families — like mine — will have kids to send to elementary school.

  2. Dan Allison says:

    People concerned about school closures might want to be aware of Parents Across America’s Journey for Justice, http://parentsacrossamerica.org/report-journey-justice-2-hearing-d-c/. They just attended hearings and held a protest on discriminatory closures. I don’t know whether this is a concern for the Sacramento City USD closures, as there hasn’t been much information yet about the income levels or cultural background of the proposed schools.

  3. Dan Allison says:

    Another perspective on keeping families in the city, at Citiwire: Cities for All: No Skipping Generations, http://citiwire.net/columns/cities-for-all-no-skipping-generations/.

  4. Pingback: Washington School meeting tonight « Getting Around Sacramento

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