Right-Sizing the District: A Page Out of the 2009 Broad Foundation Handbook

Seth Lavin, former education blogger and father of a future CPS student, recently shared an interesting find on his twitter feed, a 2009 handbook on school closings written by the Broad Foundation. http://www.scribd.com/doc/127292372/1344-schoolclosureguide. The Broad Foundation is a venture philanthropy organization that invests millions in education and trains superintendents around the country, including JC Brizard. The current CPS CEO, Byrd-Bennett, is an Executive Coach with Broad. You can read about them here: http://www.catalyst-chicago.org/news/2011/06/08/ed-week-critics-target-growing-army-broad-academy-leaders

One might expect a school board facing school closures to reach out to another school board with similar demographics, population numbers, and environment for feedback on what worked and what didn't work. Sharing best practices between colleagues is common practice. The Broad School Closure Guide, however, is not dialogue between similar school districts. The manual is a detailed handbook instructing school districts across the country in cookie cutter fashion on how to close public schools to cut costs.

Raise Your Hand does not hold the position that zero school closings should ever take place. We maintain, however, that the district cannot handle mass school closings in one year, affecting the lives of as many as 40,000 students, many of whom have learning issues and/or serious safety concerns. Furthermore, we have argued against any closings occurring without the district fully understanding the schools, their distinct populations and neighborhoods before CPS decrees that the doors must be boarded up.

CPS seems to be following step-by-step instructions provided in the Broad School Closure Guide on how to close schools. It makes us question whether CPS is examining each individual school before it decides to displace children, or if CPS is treating its charges like any other school in any other city across the country.

This Broad School Closure manual guides districts on how to close down schools right down to the wording:

  • Right-sizing the District
  • Structured for nearly 50,000 students... serving 32,000 (in the Broad Example)
  • Declining enrollment
  • Inefficient utilization of facilities (example: 1 in x seats will be empty)
  • Inequitable use of resources
  • Right-sizing will allow us to focus resources on improving student achievement

It is unnerving to read the Broad school closure playbook and identify phrases and strategies used by CPS down to the letter, even as they talk about listening to parents and examining each school individually. Why do the people in charge of our children need a handbook? Should they copy the Broad Foundation? Do they view all students as a monolithic population facing identical challenges? Are they executing school closures based on their understanding of the children, parents, schools and neighborhoods of Chicago, or are they using a manual created by individuals who may have not ever stepped foot in our city?

Here are some passages lifted from the School Closings Guide handbook. See if they seem familiar to you:

Establish allies and address opposition. During any school closing, certain stakeholders will naturally be aligned with the recommendations and others will be opposed to them. It is important to ... identify key stakeholders quickly, and attempt to secure allies. Most noteworthy of this stakeholder group are the members of the school board with whom one-on-one meetings should be scheduled after the district has recognized the need for closures but before a preliminary list is presented to the board at an official meeting.

Develop the message. Ineffective statement:“The district is operating in the red and this cannot continue.” Possible alternative:“The fact that the district is operating in the red prevents us from providing the best possible educational opportunities to the children in this community in a sustained way.” 

Ineffective statement:“We have determined that at least two schools will need to be closed to balance the budget for next year.” 
Possible alternative:“We recommend that two schools be closed in order that money currently spent on empty seats can be recaptured and applied in other ways to improve the education that our children receive.”

WARNING: True Story Pitfall.The facilitator who was hired to mediate a regional community meeting fails to gain the respect of local community members and was sidelined.... A junior district office staff member ends up in the position of having to calm a room of 250 angry parents. LESSON LEARNED: Ensure that facilitators of every meeting are both skilled and respected by the community. Some external facilitators have proven to be effective, but special care must be taken in vetting them.

If CPS wants to follow a handbook, they should seek one out that provides research on the impacts of school closings in terms of educational outcomes for children. Where is the evidence that closures even save much money in the long run? They need a handbook that addresses issues such as these:

  • How to deal with the 2,508 homeless students who could be impacted on the current list of 
    129 schools.
  • What will happen to over 6,000 students with IEPs affected and
  • How will CPS transfer kids from 39 special education cluster programs that are on the list?
  • How to deal with ensuring safety of our students both in passage to and from school and within school walls as they deal with a multitude of gang lines and affiliations in our city.

For some local context, here is some research to look at about effects of school closings:

CReATE factsheet School Closures

One piece of advice CPS does not seem to be heeding in the Broad handbook is the explicit warning about executing school closings too quickly: 

  • Do not try to close schools on a six-month timeline. Successful implementation of school closures requires a minimum of one year, and ideally 18 months.

Chicago Public schools should put the brakes on this plan of mass closings in one year. The district has closed over 100 schools in the last decade, but has never closed more than 13 schools in a single year. There are still 129 schools on the potential closing list. The leadership team involved in decision making around closings are all brand new, from the head of Strategy to the head of Special Education to the CEO. We don’t think they have the knowledge or inventory of our schools to make the radical and sweeping changes that they are contemplating. Let’s hope they don’t use this handbook generically to potentially enact irrevocable damage to our students, families and neighborhoods.