Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why all the fuss with MGT's proposal to close 29 SLPS facilities?

Over the past couple of weeks, if you've been listening hard enough or in the right places, you've likely heard a lot of angry whispers or confused discussions about MGT's proposal to close over 29 St Louis Public School facilities and move several other schools. I've attended both the public forums, and greatly appreciated the chance to speak to the Special Appointed Board before a decision gets made. You can too. Public comments, proposals and recommendations are still being accepted online until the end of the day on Thursday, Feb. 12.

SLPS website
The public comment section and a PDF summary and copy of the report on the left side of the page.

I've spent a lot of time breaking this down to others over the past week and I thought I'd do the same here. Whether you have children in SLPS schools or not, this is still an issue that concerns everyone living in St Louis City. The fact is that SLPS has to cut millions of dollars from their budget from years of mismanagement and poor funding. And enrollment is down for several reasons-- charter schools, people sends their kids to private schools, parents moving families from the city for better schools, lack of accreditation and funding. But, the schools we are talking about-- over 29 being closed and several others moved-- those schools are in your neighborhood. This decision will be made and it will affect all city residents, so you should know what's on the line and then make your voice heard.

Why does this matter if I don't have kids in SLPS?
The decision to close these schools will affect whole neighborhoods and areas. The presumption is that SLPS enrollment will continue to decline based on some of the above reasons. This presents two issues for us to think about:

One, as proposed whole neighborhoods will not have schools. For example, there is an entire ward on the north side (the 4th) that will no longer have schools within it (2 have closed, 4 are slated). What does this signal to members of that community? New houses are being built there, but the children who move into those homes will have to go to school in another neighborhood. This poses many problems, not the least of which is it says that there is no future for children in that neighborhood. They must go somewhere else. Residents will also go somewhere else eventually, as will businesses, etc. Schools have long been the anchor of any community; without one, what does that say. Furthermore, we end up with empty, derelict buildings. If an area is already depressed, do we want more huge empty buildings? Our neighborhoods will soon have them, it seems.

Two, the report by the consulting firm MGT assumes that SLPS enrollment will continue to decline. Rather than close buildings and sink money into assuming we can't do a better job and running away with our tail between our legs, why don't we do as we ask of our students and think more critically and creatively? $625,000 was spent on this report by MGT. The report only talks about the suitability of buildings, not about the schools, their academic merits, or the needs of the students within each school. Why don't we spend the same amount of money (or why didn't we spend our money that way in the first place) to see what schools could withstand a move, or which ones are not performing due to facility constraints? And then, let's spend our energy thinking about how to build better schools and raise enrollment. Better schools doesn't have to mean new buildings. Yes, facilities need to be updated and safe, but building better schools is about the students, not just the space.

Many people want to send their kids to SLPS and will, if we can fix the problem. If we build it, they will come. We need to focus our energy in the right direction. Yes, some schools will close, but we need to be careful about which ones. This study includes no information on community impact.

What are some of the problems with the report itself?
Other people spoke more eloquently than I about the inaccuracies and problems within MGT's report. I'll highlight some of those for you.

Building Capacities: Many current schools were quoted as having much higher capacities than they do. So, it was proposed that the populations of some schools be moved to another building that can only serve half as many students. This came up time and time again. It is not clear where all the students will go, because as proposed, there simply would not be enough room for the many thousands of students SLPS does have.

Comparable Facilities Not Offered: In the case of several magnet schools, comparable facilities were not offered and not all the moves included renovations to the proposed buildings to accommodate the magnet programs. This is the case with Gateway IT, which would be moved to a new facility that would not be able to house its aviation program (Yes, SLPS has one!), nor offer the same amount of science or tech classrooms needed to support its award winning programs and students (a Gateway student was named a National Merit scholar this week). Also, there is a move proposed for McKinley Classical which does not take into account the school enrollment numbers, nor the types of facilities needed. The school would be moving to a smaller auditorium, a school without dance classrooms, and less space available for other academic needs. 4 eMints schools are also being closed.

This proposal cuts special needs day programs.
Gallaudet School on Grand would be closed, with those students moving to another school. Gallaudet is a school for hearing disabled students and it is one of the only public institutions available for deaf students. This means that current students would be moved to a facility that is not devoted to the teaching of deaf students, which would sorely impact their education. Moreover, if parents still wanted a comparable education for their kids, they must send them to a private institution, which is not an option for many parents.

Nottingham, a school that teaches special needs students workforce readiness is to be combined with students at Southwest, where Central VPA currently is. This plan will close the only high school for special needs students and essentially mandate that all are mainstreamed. This is an issue for several reasons, not the least of which is the physical and emotional safety of those students. The proposed replacement location also only has one elevator, making it difficult for students to access their classes. All of these students also have IEP's, which would require a person to assist them in school, likely making the cost higher in the long run.

Missing the Big Picture
Under this plan, all three Big Picture schools would be closed, with no replacement program available. The Big Picture schools are part of a national movement to provide individualized learning at alternative schools. What does that mean? In the case of the Big Picture High School at Kottmeyer, it means students come there who are kicked out of the other schools. They come there going downhill fast. But individualized attention, internship programs, and self-directed learning turns these students around. These are kids who often do not have to be in school. They could drop out, but they don't. They come to school, and they get it together, and it seems to be working. There are some who would say that these kids don't matter, and I'd argue that these kids do. They are the ones will be resilient enough to keep looking for solutions, to keep working when everyone shuts the door on them. And we're doing it to by closing this school. It's their last chance, and we're not giving them anywhere else to go.

In other words, the case for ESOL
What's ESOL? A fancy way of saying English Language Learners, ESOL students are concentrated on the south side at the moment. This plan calls for the closing of several south side elementary schools and one new facility being built. At one of the schools to be closed, 23 languages are spoken by students. Many barely speak English. When these kids are moved to a school that has many other students and not as many specialists, how will that affect their education? When their parents are asked to leave the neighborhood and go into other places that might not understand their needs, how will that affect education?

In short, there's some problems.
The SAB has been awesome about listening to the public. Last week, 2 public forums were held, one at Roosevelt High School and one at Vashon. At both, over 100 people spoke on record. The SAB listened to each comment and welcomed as many people to speak as wanted to. They stressed that a decision has not been made. They will have to close schools, but I don't think that number has to be 29.

My chief concern about MGT's report is that it's a report on buildings, not on schools. We cannot make decisions that will affect whole communities-- communities of learners, neighborhoods, special interest schools, special needs students, and those that we might be able to attract again in the future without looking very carefully at the consequences of these closings and school moves. Yes, it would get the budget where it needs to go, but not the students. We are here to serve these kids, to offer a future, and to provide learned citizens for our city. We need to do better.

There are many problems with this report-- in its accuracy, in its assumptions, and in its mission. I have provided a sampling of some of the big issues, but not enough of an understanding. But this matters. Your opinion matters. Please look at the information and leave a comment.

Possible solutions

-Enrollment is low in grade schools. By bulking up early childhood education, we can begin to provide a strong foundation academically for children, and we can offer an education that is comparable in quality to private schools and other districts.

-Do not mess with schools that work. Many of the magnet and special needs schools were out in force-- students, parents, teachers, principals. If a school is at capacity and has a waiting list and students' academics are excellent and needs are being met, why would we want to change that? So many things don't work, let's leave the things that do alone.

-Make sure that neighborhoods can educate their own. Many of these schools slated for closure or a move have special populations that can not simply be moved or re-created. This is the case for magnet schools, and for some neighborhood schools, like Mann on the south side. Also, this plan will leave only one high school on the south side, Roosevelt, which is slated to add hundreds of students and will already be overcrowded. As new people move to the city, where will their kids go? Allow for growth?

-Close some schools strategically, and allow for un-used floors of other schools to be used on community development. Many non-profits deliver services to the students and families of these schools. Many SLPS schools have been turned very successfully into CEC's or Community Education Centers, and now the strength of those schools helps back the community and its residents. Great examples of this are Jefferson (just north of downtown) and Hamilton (CWE). Allowing non-profit service providers to rent space in un-used parts of schools makes delivery of social and educational programs, after-school programs, and adult evening education easier. It also provides incoming rent, strengthens community ties, and provides opportunities for whole-family learning and community exchange.

This might not fix everything, but there are things we can do. If this plan goes through as proposed, it's tantamount to the killing of whole communities and results in the slow death of our public school system if we assume saving these schools is a lost cause. I've taught in two schools that were closed, the last one for four years. If we think this doesn't affect the community negatively, then we have learned nothing from our past decisions.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Public Forums on SLPS School Closings

I just got back from the first public forum on MGT's recommendations for St Louis Public School's facility closings. I left 2 hours and 35 minutes in, after 53 speakers had been heard. Over thirty were still waiting to speak when I left. Students from 6th grade on up spoke, parents, teachers, community members, aldermen. This is important, folks. They are proposing closings or cancellation of programs to over 29 schools. I'll go through my notes and give the highlights of the comments, but Gateway, Big Picture, and McKinley turned out the crowds.

Many of the schools affected are magnet schools with great reputations. Many will be moved to schools that cannot offer the same programs, so it's not just that buildings are closing, it's that whole programs will be lost. We struggle so much with education, I don't see how we can afford to shut down the few programs that do work and that have proven successful. In other cases, it's special needs schools that will be lost-- or whole neighborhoods closed down. How is there even a neighborhood left if there is no school within the community? In the 4th ward, ALL the schools are on the list (and 2 were closed last year).

There's one more forum, and even if you don't have kids in SLPS, you still have a vested interest. This plan will change our city, and not in a good way. We will lose what few educational resources we have. Go to Vashon Saturday morning at 10am. Or submit a comment online to SLPS.

Two highlights of the night for me:

1.) The first student to speak was an eloquent eighth grader who stated, "We're not dollar signs; we're students striving for knwoledge."

2.) Later, a student from Big Picture (an alternative school selected for closure with no new facility offered) reading a poem about the second chance he got at Big Picture: the student, a 16 year old young man who just fathered a baby girl, broke down in the middle of reading.

These students, all of them, were eloquent as they powerfully advocated for their schools, their communities, and their right to a future in the schools they have grown to love. There are so many people who think the city doesn't produce intelligent kids, or that it's the exception and not the rule. After 6 years of working in SLPS schools, I see them succeed every day. It's a shame that with all they have to fight to be successful, they now also have to fight their schools closing.

Go to Vashon Saturday. I'll be there, standing in line, waiting to be heard.

SLPS to hear public comments about school closings

Tonight at Roosevelt High School (6pm) and Saturday morning at Vashon High School, there are forums for the public to comment on recent plans to close over 2 dozen schools within St Louis City.

SLPS info on forums

SLPS school management facilities report (on SLPS website)

The school where I taught for four years on the North side was closed in August. Several other schools where I currently work with kids are on this list. I'm headed to the meeting tonight. If you want to understand the choices being made, and if you have a vested interest in our community being educated, this is a good place to start.