Last year the School District of Philadelphia closed six schools. This year it will close 23 – almost quadruple last year’s level.
Closing schools is only half of the challenge; the other half is relocating displaced students in new schools and ensuring that their transition is seamless, with no interruption to their learning. That means their records and the support services they depend on have to transfer with them.
While we have been reassured repeatedly that services will follow the 8,500 affected students into their new schools, there is reason for concern. To take one example: As of today, more than halfway through the school year, students with behavioral health needs who transferred from Drew to Powel Elementary School in West Philadelphia are still waiting for the on-site services that were supposed to follow them across Powelton Avenue.
School closings trigger an understandable sense of loss for students, parents, alumni, neighbors, and community leaders. Transition is painful, especially for children who have little or no cushion in the form of access to “better” schools and neighborhoods, or even to mental-health services that help them cope.
Thousands of vulnerable students will be leaving the familiarity of their neighborhoods next fall. If there is no adult to walk them to and from school, how will they deal with unfamiliar and possibly unsafe streets? When they get to their new schools, how will they be accepted? How will they adjust to new routines and expectations? Where will they go for help if their trusted counselor, nurse, or favorite teacher is not there? How will they handle challenging behavior from other students on the playground or in the lunchroom or bathroom? What will happen if their academic performance is not up to par? Will they be made fun of or will they be made to feel stupid or unwanted?
These questions must be answered proactively. The concerns will inevitably be magnified if services do not follow students and additional support resources are not available.
The challenges of easing the sociocultural transition are colossal, even for a learning organization. The School District has to demonstrate what it learned from the previous school closings when the receiving schools open their doors to students from closing schools in the fall.
The best way to salvage community confidence in the possibility of a win/win from school closings is to provide vital services immediately in the schools that will be receiving transfers. Don’t repeat this year’s mistakes.
Tina Richardson is the associate dean for academic affairs at Drexel University’s School of Education.
This op-ed ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer on April 3. Read it here.