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CLOSINGS: Living Rooms & Church Appearances

Schoolclosed2 How to close failing schools and turn them around is back in the news again with the Obama selection of Arne Duncan, who has closed schools nearly every year in Chicago. 

But not everyone agrees about how best to do it -- even among those who agree it's necessary. Do you close schools quickly based on evidence of persistent failure, or do you work with local leaders and have a slower, more fluid process, risking disagreement and delay? 

This debate was highlighted earlier this fall in Seattle, where DC's Michelle Rhee, Atlanta's Beverly Hall, and Green Dot's Steve Barr debated the issue during the Gatesfest, with a word or two from Carnegie's Michele Cahill as well.

Claudia Wallis, a longtime TIME magazine writer/editor, was at the event and provided the nugget below.

From Wallis:

Rhee seemed to think that doing what she thought was right should be enough to win over hearts and minds:

"What we've tried to do in DC is take the politics out of it and stay focused on the children, putting the adult interests aside."

"Last year we closed 23 schools: 15% of our inventory and I can't tell you how many people screamed at me for closing schools that were completely failing," said Rhee. "In my opinion, those parents should have been banging down my door to close those schools."

But that failure to build political support—with both parents and teachers--appears to be exactly what's going wrong in D.C. And a few other bigwigs at the conference politely pointed it out.

"Why should people believe that the system that has failed them will give them something better?" asked Michele Cahill, of the Carnegie Foundation (formerly one of Joel Klein's deputies). Before closing 21 schools in New York, she said, "We took parents and kids to see good schools. We rented buses."

Atlanta's superintendent Beverly Hall and Green Dot founder Steve Barr also chimed in. Said Barr: "You have to show up in a church five times" before the African-American community will believe you might be offering something besides a fresh batch of promises to be broken.

Hall, now in her 10th year as superintendent, said she spent a lot of her first three years talking with parents in their living rooms. She closed 17 failing schools. "Success began to change people's minds. Now, she said, "there's less pushback"—even though she was in the process of "transforming" a sentimental favorite: the high school attended by Martin Luther King.

Opposition to school closings remains strong in Chicago, though few if any closing decisions have been delayed or called off. The district has softened its approach over recent years -- reopening schools immediately so that kids don't have to go somewhere else for a year and (I'm told) consulting more substantively with community and school leaders before making decisions.  The next round in Chicago will be announced in January.

Wallis is currently a Spencer Fellow at Columbia University where she is working on a major project about autism and education. 

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