The full-size gymnasium seemed small that February night as 10 administrators faced the parents of a soon-to-be-closed elementary school. As cold as New York State is in midwinter, the audience's reception was colder. Every administrator from our K–12 schools in Averill Park Central School District was at the event; we wanted the 100-plus parents in the room to know we were a team. In the audience, arms were folded, no one was smiling, and a few adults made angry comments any time there was a second of silence. When someone yelled, "How can you sleep at night?" we knew it was going to be a long, painful evening.
The anger stemmed from the district's decision to close two elementary schools. One school that served only 4th and 5th graders (Sand Lake) would be combined with a K–3 school on the same campus. However, this cold evening, we were in the gymnasium to discuss the closing of George Washington Elementary School, a school of approximately 100 students and one classroom per grade.
Our board of education was considering renting the school's building to the Questar III Board of Cooperative Educational Services. This would generate much-needed revenue and possibly save 16 teaching jobs and many high school programs that were on the chopping block. Our school district had been facing low enrollment and, like all New York State schools, was struggling with budgetary issues. A study had indicated that our enrollment would continue to decline over the next five years. Unfortunately, the George Washington community didn't buy in to the idea of closing their school, and every adult in the gymnasium wanted us to know how he or she felt.
School Closings and Parents' Anger
As more neighborhood schools close,1
many parents believe that schooling is changing for the worse. Parents fear that their children will be educated by a teacher just off the assembly line rather than someone they've known for years. They want the comfort of a school building they can see out their back window, knowing that if there were an emergency, they could get to their children quickly.
Our school district had tried to be sensitive to such concerns. We began by initiating discussion among the community six months before the final decision was made—through letters, newspaper articles, meetings, informational e-mails, frequently asked questions on the district's website, and public hearings. Interactions with parents were rocky from the start. At one board of education meeting, some George Washington parents thought it would be a good idea to have their 7-year-old children picket in front of the school where the meeting was held. The news media showed up with cameras rolling.
In March 2010, a month after our face-the-parents meeting, the board voted to close George Washington and send its students to Poestenkill Elementary School, where I was principal. I knew there would be hard feelings. As angry as George Washington parents were, Poestenkill Elementary parents were just as upset that their school would have to absorb 100 more students. One parent created a Facebook page on which parents posted angry rants that targeted certain administrators and pitted parents of George Washington kids against Poestenkill parents. Someone created an anonymous blog that targeted administrators and staff.
Communicating to Build Trust
In this charged atmosphere, the George Washington principal (Barbara Goldstein) and I did all we could to make the transition as smooth as possible. We worked with teachers and fellow principals to create events that would help students and parents weather the change. We formed "transition teams" of parents, staff, and students in both schools.
We looked at the consolidation through the eyes of the students, of course, but we knew we couldn't forget the parents; we needed to understand what they were feeling and reassure them. One George Washington parent who was involved in the school came to tears at every board meeting. She worried that she would not be able to be as involved at Poestenkill. To her, all those years of hard work would end when George Washington closed. But to me, she was a new parent with great ideas, and I wanted her to understand how much she would be welcomed.
The George Washington principal and I learned to communicate with families in ways that built trust. For instance, we always delivered the same message at the same time. Nothing is worse during a transition than one group of parents believing they aren't getting the same information that other parents are. A certain amount of this perception is inevitable because some parents will always mistrust administrators, but we strove to avoid it. Through e-mail blasts and postings on my principal's blog, we notified both sets of parents frequently about upcoming school board meetings; parent teacher association (PTA) meetings at both elementary schools; and daily transition events we were holding for students. We also notified students about transition events for adults.
I used my blog to defend controversial decisions, and I was open about the fact that people in both school communities had to get past some hard feelings and focus on bringing two communities together. I also used posts to show the engaging, welcoming atmosphere at the school. I shared photos and information about the fun things that happen in any elementary school and traditional events at Poestenkill—such as our annual Harvest Festival.
Easing the Transition
After consolidation was announced in spring, teachers in both schools kept as much normalcy for students as possible. They openly answered kids' questions— both George Washington students' worries about going to a new school and Poestenkill students' wonderings about what it would be like to have 100 new students arrive. As Poestenkill's principal, I visited GW weekly so students would get used to seeing me. I read stories to some classes and stopped by to say hello to others. Staff from both schools tried to alleviate fears by creating events that would help kids and parents get used to the coming change:
- We gave students from both schools many opportunities to interact socially, a great way to focus on the positive aspects of the change.
- Joint learning activities helped kids from both schools experience working together. K–2 students from George Washington attended Magic Moments, a biweekly morning program at Poestenkill for all K–2 students. The kids then went back to the classrooms and did activities together. First graders from both schools planted flowers in Poestenkill's community garden, and 2nd graders became pen pals. We formed the 4th graders into cross-school teams to play Jeopardy in preparation for New York State's math and science exams.
- At the end of every school year, Poestenkill's teachers arrange a "moving up" day at which students get to meet the teachers from the grade level they'll be entering. George Washington's students and teachers took part in the 2010 moving up day. Many George Washington students were excited about having several sections of each grade level because it multiplied their opportunity to meet new friends.
- In late spring, we hosted an open house for George Washington parents at Poestenkill. Parents learned about yearly events at the school and received a tour from Poestenkill's transition team. Although some parents still had hurt feelings, the open house helped most of them feel more comfortable. For instance, they realized that both elementary schools hosted similar events and used the same curriculum.
- Poestenkill's PTA traditionally holds two summer meetings to reflect on the most recent school year and focus on the year to come. We invited all parents from both schools to attend these gatherings. Parents tried to blend the best ideas from both schools; for example, at the suggestion of George Washington's parents we planned a roller skating night (a favorite function at George Washington for decades) in addition to Poestenkill's traditional functions. We planned for some activities to take place at George Washington (the district still owns the building). Parents liked knowing they could still enter that school with their children.
- In late August, we had an ice cream social on Poestenkill's playground for all parents and students. It was our first opportunity to bring everyone in the two communities together socially and was a well-attended success. As parents chatted over ice cream and watched their kids play together, they began to feel excited about the move.
By summer's end, a few disgruntled parents were still vocal on their blog and Facebook page, but the population of angry parents had dwindled. Most families accepted the change.
The New School Year
This past September, the first day of school with 100 newly transferred students brought me more stress than most first days. I worried that the bus ride would be too long for the new students or that we'd see an increase in parent phone calls. Trying to set a good tone, I assured everyone that the day would be like any other opening day—and it was. Just like every year, parents dropped their children off and gave them a hug. Kids came in excited to begin their school year.
Fortunately, we had transferred some longtime staff from George Washington to Poestenkill. Because of a series of faculty retirements and teacher moves, we were able to bring a beloved secretary, a social worker, the physical education teacher, and three classroom teachers to the new school.2
These teachers and staff members were posted in the hallways to welcome students. The former George Washington principal came for the morning to welcome students back to school.
As the school year went on, natural transition events surfaced, such as having former George Washington parents participate in Magic Moments or inviting them to attend a special meeting with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who visited our school in October. During this school year, all 450 Poestenkill Elementary School students participated in the One Book, One School program, which puts one book—in our case, George Selden's The Cricket in Times Square—in the hands of all students, staff, and teachers in a school. Everyone participated in reading activities that revolved around the book, which brought us together as one school community. As the year unfolded, many parents stopped me to say how happy their children were in their new school.
My colleagues and I learned the following lessons about how to successfully navigate a school closing:
- Communicate clearly—and trust your teams. The George Washington principal and I communicated daily and brainstormed ideas that we could bring to teachers. But our ideas were only as good as the teams that carried them out. Teachers, staff, students, and parents created effective transition events; they were the ones who supported the consolidation out in the community.
- Get your district behind you. Our districtwide administrative team worked hard together. Even principals who were not affected by the consolidation provided support and ideas.
- Realize the transition may never be completely over. We've initiated a two-year plan at Poestenkill Elementary to help create more of a community throughout the school. We still work to make sure all our students feel safe and can work through the issues that come with switching buildings.
Looking back on that cold night in front of a roomful of angry parents, I realize that, much as I disliked being on the receiving end of harsh comments, they helped me understand the community's point of view. The parents had helped create something special at George Washington, and they were sad to see that community go away. Together, we have built a new community.
Do's & Don'ts for School Closings
- Involve the community in the discussion.
- Discuss the pros and cons of closing a school.
- Conduct an enrollment study of your area so you can present facts about why a school closing makes sense.
- Stay ahead of the message the public receives.
- Remember that every decision has to be about the kids.
- Ignore the public. Listen to what people are saying, even though you may not agree.
- Make promises you can't keep.
- Forget that there is a cost to closing a school building just as there is a cost to keeping one open.
- Allow the media to carry the message without your input.
- Forget to involve the students, faculty, and staff.
Board Decision to Close 28 Kansas City Schools. (2010, March 11). The New York Times.
The two schools had always shared a music teacher and a librarian; with consolidation, these became full-time positions in one building.
Peter M. De Witt is principal of Poestenkill Elementary School in Averill Park, New York, and a consultant for the International Center for Leadership in Education; www.petermdewitt.com; email@example.com. Josephine Moccia is superintendent of Averill Park Central School District; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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