Adapted and reprinted from Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities by Andre Perry, with permission from Brookings Institution Press, © 2020 by Brookings Institution.
“When will schools open?” It’s a question that parents, employers and school leaders are struggling to answer amid a national pandemic that doesn’t seem to be letting up soon.
We’re all struggling in this new normal where our homes are standing in for schools and workplaces. Something has to give. Sometimes there simply isn’t enough room at the dining room table for homework, dinner and employment (if you have the luxury of working from home). I love my child, but, like many parents, I’m desperate for the day his school reopens. The longer this drags out, though, the more I’ve been thinking about the even bigger trauma faced by families whose schools close for good.
This period of social distancing is giving us a glimpse of what it’s like when a school is shuttered permanently, a tragedy tens of thousands of families have had to deal with over the last two decades. Like the coronavirus, the impact of permanent school closures disproportionately hit Black and urban neighborhoods. Of the 22,101 public schools that have closed since 2004, 3,927 (17 percent) of them were in Black-majority census tracts, and 3,395 of those schools (86 percent) were in urban areas.
$550 billion — the investment needed to bring schools nationwide up to standard due to damage caused by postponing repairs, according to a 2013 federal estimate.
Schools are linchpins of a community’s overall physical landscape and of what researcher Eric Klinenberg defines as social infrastructure: the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact. We use schools as polling stations and for neighborhood association meetings. Many students have fun on the playground when the school is closed. Schools hold the history and culture of a place through yearbooks, trophy cases, and photo archives. School traditions often connect one generation to the next, providing a sense of community stability and cohesion.
While the closures are often unavoidable — many districts close schools due to low enrollments — academic achievement is increasingly a factor. Whatever the reason a school has to close, something needs to fill the educational, economic, and social voids created by the closure. But too often schools close and leave a hole that’s never filled.
Research suggests closing schools can be a mixed bag for students; although there are a few benefits, students are largely harmed when they’re sent to other buildings. But neighborhoods (and cities more broadly) very rarely do better when they lose such a critical anchoring institution.
A 2013 Pew Charitable Trust report examined the impact of shuttered schools on communities across the country and the factors that go into a district’s decision on what to do with the now-vacant structures. In general, Pew finds that the faster a district can close on the sale of a former school, the better. It’s very costly for districts and cities to hold on to empty buildings. Districts that ostensibly couldn’t afford to keep a building open are in no position to pay for the necessary maintenance, security, and insurance to keep it vacant as they search for a new occupant or wait until the school-age population increases. In 2013, the federal government estimated that schools nationwide needed a $550 billion investment to bring them up to standard, just for deferred maintenance issues — damage from postponing repairs.
Leasing is difficult because the costs of renovation are often cost-prohibitive. For every dollar spent on upkeep, a dollar is lost in profit in a potential sale. In places where the demand for real estate is high, like present-day Washington, D.C., districts can sell vacant properties quickly, maximizing their sale value. However, declines in the school-going population often correspond with an overall population decline, which doesn’t bode well for demand. Larger buildings are harder to sell because, typically, there are fewer groups in the area able to buy them or use them in another form. In Washington, D.C., the overall population is increasing, which makes it easier to sell or convert properties to meet community needs.
Leaders of Black-majority cities must have a plan to address pre-existing vacant properties and help communities heal after this current economic crisis.
Leaders of Black-majority cities must have a plan to address pre-existing vacant properties and help communities heal after this current economic crisis. School district leaders must address adult educational and workforce development needs that include workforce and business training, especially in Black communities where death rates from the coronavirus are higher and the economic impact is more severe. Even if a district school closes, families still need educational services close by, so they can work while their children get access to structured enrichment activities.
Districts may not be able to afford to keep schools open, but they also can’t afford to have schools sitting dormant, waiting for outsiders to recognize their possibilities. From a public policy perspective, what we consider a school must change to meet the demands of local communities. Municipalities must create opportunities to convert shuttered schools to meet neighborhoods’ needs before outside investors do.
The primary school I attended, Johnston Elementary, is now Community Forge, a nonprofit business incubator dedicated to speeding up the growth of start-ups in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. Closed in 2012, the building sat vacant until Community Forge purchased Johnston from the school district for $225,000 and reopened it in 2018. Traditional business incubators strive to do just as their name suggests — they incubate, or help develop, businesses so they can eventually leave the developmental nest to fly on their own. Incubators provide a physical office space and offer services such as printing and internet, conference rooms, and even management training to those individuals who apply and/or pay rent. However, Community Forge is an incubator that seeks social as well as business returns on its investment. “What we’re incubating here is not just about money,” Co-founder Michael Skirpan told me. “It is also about incubating community.”
There are other possibilities for closed facilities: grocery stores, job training centers, drug counseling centers, manufacturing plants, art galleries, and more. In Puerto Rico, which closed more than 600 schools after a mass exodus of children, communities have successfully pushed for empty buildings to become community centers.
But incubators can help innovate how cities repurpose valuable community assets to meet the economic, educational, and social infrastructure needs of the city. “Are arts for other people, or can arts exist without an audience?” Erin Perry (no relation) asked me rhetorically. Perry is the executive director of the Legacy Arts Project in Pittsburgh. She rented a space for one of her art programs in Community Forge during its first summer of operations. Like me, she attended the old Johnston School, learning in the same room and under the same teacher — a decade after I did. Perry’s reflections on art also inform why we must think carefully about repurposing schools.
“I’m of the mind that art does exist without an audience, that it doesn’t always have to be for someone else,” Perry said. A school can exist without an abundance of children. However, we must have the vision and the resources to meet children and adults’ needs. Perry added that we need to create spaces that convey that “who they are is enough.”
Perry is right. When Black children and their parents are valued, we can repurpose schools in ways that won’t keep us socially distant.
This story about school closures was adapted and reprinted by The Hechinger Report from Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities by Andre Perry, with permission from Brookings Institution Press, © 2020 by Brookings Institution.