Friday, October 9, 2015

How well is the School District doing at engaging the public about closures?

An IOM editorial considers:

How well is the School District doing at engaging the public about closures?

Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II. (Elizabeth Robertson / File)
Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II. (Elizabeth Robertson / File)

An IOM editorial considers:

In the past decade, the Philadelphia School District has lost about 25 percent of its enrollment - a number matched by Detroit's loss of population over the same period. In some ways, the district's challenge in "right sizing" is more complicated than Detroit's. For one thing, the loss of 50,000 students - most of whom have enrolled in charter schools - is scattered throughout the city.

Which schools have been hit with the biggest enrollment declines, and the physical state of often-ancient school buildings are just some of the factors the district has had to balance in developing its facilities master plan, announced earlier this month. That plan immediately targets nine schools for closing - a move that will eliminate only 1,400 of the 70,000 or so empty seats, but should provide a good test case for how the district will move on the rest.

So far, the district has done some things right - notably its efforts to include the public in discussions. And given the potential for high emotions in neighborhoods facing closings, this is key.

The district's public outreach includes 17 meetings throughout the city, many of which will be in the evening (not in the middle of the day, when many parents are at work). The meetings will be streamed live on the Internet and recorded.

We call that a good start. Especially if officials consider these meetings more than the chance to check "public engagement" off their to-do list and get on with school closings. Will they actually incorporate student, parent and community feedback into their decision-making?

The only way the district will pull off closings without a huge disruption is by getting community buy-in. And that means not just making a case to the community, but really taking community concerns seriously - including, possibly, by altering plans.

There is reason to worry that the district doesn't believe this. It refused for many months to name any specific schools being considered for closure, giving the impression that officials didn't want to hear from the public until they finalized their decisions.

Now that the names have been released, the district has provided only a list of general factors it considered when deciding which schools to recommend for closure. It hasn't yet offered detailed explanations for why it wants to close each school. This makes it harder for community members to understand where the district is coming from, or argue for changes. It also makes it difficult to see the larger strategy the district has in mind for future closings.

The district says it plans on explaining each decision. It did provide handouts at a recent meeting in Roxborough. But for parents who attended, this was a flood of data at the last minute. Officials should release information ahead of time, so parents can digest it and offer thoughtful responses. The next meeting is on Dec. 7 at 6 p.m. at West Philadelphia High.

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