Closing Schools to Open Opportunities

I chose to attend a session called Closing Schools to Open Opportunities – a presentation made by folks from the Englewood school system. One might ask why, given that St. Vrain is growing and that we are building and opening new schools.

I believe we need to create space for new types of schools in our districts. Currently, St. Vrain schools are intended to be essentially the same. Neighborhoods distinguish schools. That’s an outdated model. People value living close to their children’s school. But, people also value specific types of curriculums and philosophies – sometimes more than location. As I have noted on my blog several times, some families want dual-immersion language schools. Others seek the Montessori approach. Still others prefer science & technology or fine arts focus schools. Some families prefer traditional public schools.

We need to create these types of options so that St. Vrain families can find a home in St. Vrain schools. Everything I’m learning suggests it is far easier to start a new school with a new program than it is to transition an existing school into a focus school. Englewood acted on this insight.

Englewood closed two middle schools. Both schools were under capacity. Then, they reopened a “brand new” school in one of the existing buildings with a new name and a new focus to create new opportunities for their students – as well as save money.

The community and teachers played an active role in the process. Community members had several opportunities to comment on plans and suggest ideas for a focus. The teachers from the two schools closed that were closed made choices about what type of focus school they wanted to become. They chose to become an IB (International Baccalaureate) school.

The process was not without pain and emotion. Families, community members and teachers felt deep ties to the existing schools. Even though people knew it made sense to close a school, their hearts did not want to do it.

St. Vrain is in a similar position. We have schools that are under capacity. We recently opened a new middle school, will open two new elementary schools in 2008 and a new high school in 2009 to manage growth in the outer parts of our school district. This needed to be done. The short term implication is that we have excess capacity. And, we’re likely to have excess capacity for a while. For instance, we have 1300 empty middle school seats.

The excess capacity creates an opportunity. We could use the next couple of years as an opportunity to create a wider range of educational options for St. Vrain families. Pursuing an opportunity like this is not without risk. It opens the district up to emotional issues and is fraught with equity issues.

We can choose to avoid conflict and try nothing. Or, we can choose to do our best to work together to create options our community is yearning to have.

Englewood chose to work though the tough issues. They believe they’re in a better place.

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3 Responses to “Closing Schools to Open Opportunities”

  1. Brad Jolly Says:

    I like the idea in general, John. Do you have specific suggestions in mind?
    One potential problem I see is that the under-capacity schools are under capacity because academically-inclined parents are reluctant to send their kids there. If we put in a special program to pull them back, how do we explain to the parents at the other schools why their children are not given the same opportunities?
    Again, though, I like the concept, and I look forward to hearing your specific implementation ideas.

  2. Donna Salemink Says:

    Once again, thanks for sharing your thoughts about the conference. I like what you said about the charter school idea being “fraught with equity issues.” I also wonder how to ensure that all folks are at least offered the same choices in education . Actually, I’m not sure offered is the right word here. I wonder if for some, certain barriers such as access to technology, linguistic diversity, and financial background may prevent them from going to certain “schools of choice.” I wonder sometimes if charter schools might bring back segregation to an ugly degree.

  3. John Creighton Says:

    Segregation is an issue that should be a great concern to all of us – not just in charter schools but all our schools.
    We do far too little to make diversity an asset in our schools. And, yet, our children are going to have to work with people from a vast away of cultures and backgrounds as our globe continues to shrink.
    I will be writing about specific ideas over the next few weeks.

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