Pittsburgh has been through four rounds of school closings in recent years, with a total loss of 39 schools. Since 2000, the city dropped from 93 schools to the current 54, a decrease of 41%.[i] While this was largely due to several decades of population decline (which has now leveled off), these closings had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, with most of the lost schools in neighborhoods such as Hazelwood, the Hill District, Oakland, and the Northside. The back-to-back rounds of school closures displaced some students multiple times while creating entire “school deserts” – communities without a single public school. This kind of school closure pattern, with its lopsided affect on students of color living in poverty, reflects one of the most damaging national trends in public education.[ii]
While school performance is sometimes used to justify closure, it goes without saying that you cannot improve a school by closing it. Closing “under-performing” schools – often attended by predominantly African-American students – has also had a disproportionate impact on communities of color: children are bused out of the neighborhood, families find it difficult to engage with distant new schools, empty school buildings contribute to blight, and displaced students do not actually gain a better education.
Public schools are essential public assets, built by the people of Pittsburgh. They represent prime investments by our foremothers and fathers in the very fabric of our communities. Schools should only be closed if there are no children to go to them. Public schools should never be closed, the buildings sold off, and then re-opened as privately operated schools. This is a betrayal of the public investment made by earlier generations.
Yet many large urban school districts, including Pittsburgh, are now trying to solve the problems of budget crises by closing schools. Research shows that school closings hurt students and are devastating to communities: 1) School closings are socially disruptive, often weakening the community’s trust in, and respect for, public education. 2) School closings have a negative effect on the education of the children who have been relocated, as well as on the schools that must absorb the overflow. 3) Closing schools rarely saves the money that is projected to be saved. The children moved must still be educated, and there is still minimum maintenance, leasing fees, etc., that must be paid on the closed building.[iii]
It’s still possible we may have to close additional schools. But fortunately, after several decades of decline, Pittsburgh’s population has now leveled off. In fact, since 2002 the city’s birth rate has been flat (not declining) and the district calculates that this should “start to stabilize school-age numbers.”[iv] Indeed, Kindergarten enrollment in PPS has been way up for the last two years.[v] In addition, a recent report revealed Pittsburgh leads the nation in the percentage of young people moving to the city rather than leaving it.[vi] These are excellent signs for Pittsburgh schools and communities and should encourage our re-investment in public schools as public assets. Once lost, there is no getting these historic public schools back for the children and grandchildren of Pittsburgh.
Related Yinzercation articles:
- “Again and Again“: evidence of what happens with repeated school closures in our communities
- “School Size” if often used as a way to determine closures, but also raises significant questions
- “School Utilization”: de-coding the way we describe how schools are used
- “School Spacing“: how we have created school deserts without a single public school
- “What Pittsburghers are Really Saying about School Closures” survey results
[iv] Envisioning Update to the Board of Directors, May 6, 2013, slide 7.