Dear St. Louis Public Schools Leadership and Board of Education,
The following is offered with the belief that the district’s leadership holds sacred its commitment to the complete wellbeing of its students and their journey to becoming civically engaged, contributing and fulfilled adults of our community. It is also offered with the understanding that a district-level school consolidation plan is not just education policy– it is equally also local economic, real estate development, land use, public health and community safety policy. The potential casualties of school closings include not only students and their academic growth but the entire trajectory and viability of the neighborhoods that the schools anchor. Moreover, when school closings are concentrated in already marginalized communities, they threaten our regional aspirations for inclusive growth and excellence.
A review of the neighborhood impact component of the consolidation scoring matrix reveals a methodology that is fundamentally flawed. It is not one that assesses the impact of closing a school on a neighborhood but rather one that incompletely and subjectively gauges real estate development activity and interests in the city’s neighborhoods by a very narrow set of actors who have little to no personal stake in the neighborhoods’ wellbeing. At the most basic level, an assessment of neighborhood impact should ask who loses today and for the long term. Instead, the methodology used prioritizes who stands to gain in which neighborhoods and in a relatively short time frame. The current methodology penalizes neighborhoods for the systemic racism, disinvestment and neglect waged on them by a growing cast of reinforcing external actors and rewards neighborhoods that, for the most part, are already faring exponentially better than at least half of the city’s neighborhoods.
What follows proposes improvements to the neighborhood impact scoring approach. While it is by no means exhaustive, it is the basis of a more complex exploration of neighborhood impact with racial and economic equity as the centerpoint. The guidance is framed around the wellbeing and experiences of people, the interpersonal connections and power between people within a shared place, the physical place and the economic market it comprises, and the potential signaling to our regional systems and community.
To assess what difference closing a school will make on a neighborhood, we begin by probing for potential harm to those who stand to be most directly impacted: the residents. We ask:
- What is the history and collective memory of development and investment shared by residents? What promises of investment and change have been made and remembered but not kept? To what magnitude has the pattern of (dis)investment and unfulfilled development promises led to social traumatization of residents?
- In context of the existing absence of community partners and services, property abandonment, and neglect of environment: what has been the effect on resident’s psychological safety?
- What is the probability of residents maintaining the capacity to believe in a promising future for themselves and their neighborhood even as a large physical, social and economic asset is removed?
We then look to the potential for a school’s closing to (further) extract power, connection and influence– political, social, economic and beyond– from the people of the neighborhood and their civic infrastructure. We explore:
- Does the school building serve additional purposes such as an election polling place; community celebration, meeting, or organizing space; or a designated safe space for shelter and retreat?
- Is the school one of the few or only institutional and civic anchors still present and operating in the neighborhood?
- Understanding that a neighborhood school closing means youth will be rerouted to other communities: Will the displacement of the educational home cause significant disruption of youth’s social ties to their own neighborhood? Will the increased time spent going to and from school interfere with the families’ own social norms and relationships with their youth? Will links between the neighborhood’s families be broken as their social networks and time grow increasingly outside of their neighborhoods?
Only after examining impact on a neighborhood’s people and their agency to participate in and direct the trajectory of their neighborhood should we consider the impact of a school’s closing on the physical place and its economic market. We probe:
- Which neighborhoods can stand to absorb and quickly reuse large vacant buildings? Which neighborhoods are already flooded with longstanding vacancies that have yet to be put back into productive use?
- What is the threat of further extracting opportunities for place-based wealth building by negatively impacting property values with the downgrading of a community asset into a liability?
- To what extent does such a large vacancy and its physical location within a neighborhood support increased crime and lack of personal and property safety?
Finally, because large-scale school closings influence broader perception and actions across the city and our regional systems, we are obligated to examine if:
- The constellation of closings endorses and exacerbates historic patterns of disinvestment in particular people and their places, assets, power and opportunity to thrive, thereby broadcasting to our region that the identified places and their people are not worthy of investment and support.
- The potential for such a constellation to widen racial inequities in education, health and wealth with the understanding that simply maintaining the status quo is indeed taking action to keep those gaps from closing
In the absence of assessing neighborhood impact at least to the degree outlined here for all schools within the system, the District’s assessment is unequivocally incomplete.
Yet, it is our great fortune as a deeply talented and engaged community that we have within our reach all the expertise required to undertake a well-informed assessment of school closings on neighborhoods and our region as a whole. Equally valuable, we have the right thinkers, doers and supporters to develop the strategies needed for quickly repurposing closed buildings which must be delivered as part of a comprehensive school consolidation plan. In the interest of a future St. Louis that is just, equitable and for once bold and unwavering in its support of its Black communities to the benefit of the whole, we would greatly respect and support SLPS leadership if it moved to:
- Postpone the vote on consolidation.
- Convene a cross-sector team of grass-roots to widely regarded experts within our region to partner with the district in undertaking a comprehensive assessment of options and impacts.
- Draw on national emerging practices for school multi-uses, and only if necessary consolidations, that are actively anti-racist and resist further harm to communities of color.
- Issue a revised plan that moves the district towards comprehensive transformation instead of simple consolidation that includes immediately implementable, asset-based strategies for school buildings that must be closed.
We understand that time is of the essence as operating resources are scarce. We also understand that collectively, we have a duty at this very moment to support the district in laying the foundation for a system of excellence for all and not rushing to a solution that serves today’s needs while creating irreversible harm for generations. Invest STL stands ready and willing to be a supportive partner in a re-imagined process that advances racial and economic equity for our youth, our neighborhoods and our regional community.