Is there a good way to close a neighborhood school?

I just spent some time learning about a remarkable public school in Burlington, Vermont — the Sustainability Academy — and perhaps the most remarkable thing I heard was the way it turned a potentially catastrophic community event — the closing of a neighborhood school — into a positive success story that has deepened, not diminished, Burlington’s sense of community.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue recently, not least because I’ll be speaking next week in Chicago — a city whose public school closings have been particularly tense and polarizing. So I asked several members of the SA community to help me understand how they could turn a struggling local school in a struggling neighborhood with declining attendance into a vibrant magnet school at which, in the words of parent Maleka Clarke, “because everyone is different, no one is different.”

You can read more about the school’s transformation here, but when it comes to the core ingredients required to remake a school in inclusive, constructive ways, here’s what they outlined:

  • Choice for families, so that no one is being redistricted into something that is not of their choosing;
  • A sense of permission, from the superintendent, to think innovatively and create something different and new;
  • The presence of “positive mediation,” one in which members of the previous school, the current community, and the new leadership are facilitated through some shared strategic planning;
  • Skilled leadership — democratic, participatory, and strategic — that can guide the thinking about what will happen next, and that prioritizes “creating an environment where all voices can be heard, and where a group’s best thinking can emerge”; and
  • Pilot funds that help the school team plan and experiment.

Were any of these elements in place during the school closings in Chicago? Would the presence of any or most of them have helped ensure a more positive result? In short, what must cities start, stop, and keep doing when it comes to making tough decisions about which schools will continue, which schools will be shuttered, and which kinds of schools will take their place?

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