The fight for/against consolidations

Consolidating schools and/or districts is a highly controversial strategy, but it should be considered in a variety of circumstances. The Board of the Chicago Public Schools is currently debating the pros & cons of consolidating a handful of schools and the community is gearing up for a fight. Once again, this comes down to the “does this decision positively impact the adults or the kids?” conundrum.  (Battles loom over proposed consolidations of Chicago schools, Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2011)

Circumstances that warrant possible consolidation:

Cost-efficiency — Many states have hundreds of small school districts; in some cases, individual schools act as an entire school district. While this may ensure that the local community has a say (i.e. control) of the school, it also means that the community must fund a superintendent’s salary, other district staff, and the students might not have access to the highest quality educational programs and opportunities. For example, it’s difficult to have a full-time curriculum director or literacy specialists in such a small district, and larger districts can use economies of scale to negotiate better prices on purchased products or services. Some independent charter schools are even joining forces, through regional consortiums, to benefit from these type of advantages.

While small districts may produce more jobs for teachers and district staffers, and it may provide parents and the community with the feeling of control, it wastes money that could be better spent on providing higher quality instruction and opportunity to the students.

Attendance shifts — Over time, the population of a community changes and many schools that were built in specific places no longer have enough students to fill all the open seats. In effect, it does not make financial sense to have two or more half-full elementary schools within the same area. While I agree that transporting students across the city isn’t always the best solution, if there are partially full schools within a similar area, consolidation should be considered.

Low-performance — In Chicago’s case, the district is trying to not only save money, but improve the quality of education for more students. Some schools continually struggle with low-performance and are slated for closure within a few years (schools are often allowed to try to improve for numerous years before they are shut-down or phased-out), so the district can adjust attendance boundaries and limit placing new students at that school. In a sense, this consolidates the students before the school. If there are two half-full elementary schools in a close proximity, one high-performing and one low-performing, what are the valid arguments for not consolidating the students into the higher-performing school?

Cautions — Combining schools and/or districts requires a great deal of political and cultural sensitivity. The communities must be informed about the changes, the impact on their children and the neighborhood, and how they will be able to participate in the new school/district. When combining schools, possible gang affiliations or rivalries should also be taken into account. As was evident in Green Dot’s Locke High School transformation gang affiliations caused a significant number of problems while trying to group students into the new “small schools.” (See Alexander Russo’s new book on the Locke transformation for more detail on this issue.)

Consolidating schools or districts is not a magic bullet solution, but it should be considered as an aspect of both school improvement and cost-saving measures. Community members and staff will continue to fight for their schools for a variety of reason (some valid and others not), but the decision-makers need to make the tough decisions and determine what’s best for the students and not the adults.

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