School transformation is the cure for school closure

School closure disrupts communities, weakens neighborhood relations, and can lead to blight and wasted tax payer money. The massive wave of roughly 50 school closures that recently occurred in Chicago should be wished upon no city or community.

But, contrary to the opinions often voiced against school closures, school closures are not the result of despotic leaders who aim to destroy public education. Rather, school closures result from the brutal fiscal realities of under-enrollment, which is in turn, caused by both poor performance and demographic change.

It doesn’t have to be like this. School closures can be reduced if education leaders and communities embrace strategies that increase schools performance – strategies such as school transformation.

Poor performance causes school closure

When families leave public schools – either because of demographic change or school quality – district enrollment drops and facilities become underutilized. Over time, if district officials avoid annual school closures (which they usually do), this facility underutilization leads to a massive monetary loss. This loss is covered by “borrowing” money away from fully enrolled schools to subsidize under-enrolled schools.

Inevitably, the district will eventually consolidate under-enrolled schools by closing schools. Even conservative estimates in Chicago show that the public school system lost 30,000 students over a 14 year period (which equates to 30-60 schools depending on school size).

Yes, sometimes unavoidable demographic changes drive enrollment patterns and educators have almost no influence over these large-scale dynamics. Other times, however, it is educational failure that causes shifts in enrollment patterns. In these cases, it works like this:

poor performance → families leave → facility not fully utilized → financial loss → school closure

The key takeaway is this: the root cause of avoidable school closure is that poor performing schools cause families to leave.

Once families leave, the school closure battle is mostly lost. We can protest, write letters and petition school boards – but in the end schools will close. As they have here and here and here and here. The only other option is district bankruptcy.

To avoid closure, act fast

Even in our best urban school systems, schools continue to underperform. Unfortunately, the typical improvement strategy – allowing the current governing entity to try and make the school better – rarely succeeds. In New Orleans, where I work, we have rightly abandoned this strategy. Instead of continually investing in failings schools, we transform them. While it would be great if failing schools could simply improve with increased time and investment, such wishful thinking harms children.

Our strategy is simple. A charter school operator gets three to four years to demonstrate an ability to serve children. If it fails, a new charter schools replaces the failing entity. Unlike most districts, we do not allow schools to continue serving children based on promises that “next year will be better.”

In New Orleans, we currently transform the bottom five to ten percent of schools each year. This will hopefully taper off as fewer schools fail and the system stabilizes, but we expect a long-term two to three percent transformation rate.

How is this strategy working in New Orleans? Well, seven years into our reform efforts, system scores continue to rise. Most notably, the performance of failing schools in New Orleans at the time of transformation has doubled over the past five years. School transformation is driving such improvements in the absolute quality of schools that the schools we transform now would have been in the middle of the pack just five years ago. The floor is rising.

There may be effective school improvement strategies out there that can be scaled, and they should be tried. Time will tell what works best. But right now, given the evidence I’ve seen, transformation is the most effective strategy.

What does not work is to let schools fail, watch parents flee, and then protest when schools close. This is simply an exercise in denial and futility.

The time to act is when a school initially fails and a high-quality operator is available to step-in. This is the moment for meaningful change.

Neerav Kingsland is CEO of New Schools for New Orleans. As CEO, Neerav manages the organization toward achieving its goals in the areas of citywide strategic leadership, school development, and human capital. In previous writings, he has advocated that charter school districts replace the traditional urban school system structure.