“Listen to the baby!” someone shouted at a recent Austin Independent School District community School Changes meeting regarding the district’s proposal to close and consolidate schools. Attendees cheered in support of the student, who represented those directly affected by the proposal. The young boy stood in the middle of our circle and explained how much he loved his school and how badly he wanted to continue walking to his school with his mom next year.
We have lost sight of who should be the center of decision-making in school closures: children.
Amid the focus on budgetary concerns and under-enrollment that have sparked Twitter wars and lengthy comment threads, there are two serious considerations that AISD administrators are paying little attention to: the stability for children and their psychological well-being.
Dozens of scholars note the negative impact on academic achievement, GPA, attendance and student-teacher relationship, but they rely mostly on anecdotal evidence when attempting to understand how a closure or consolidation affects the well-being of children. Sadly, there is little research on the psychological effects of school closures on children, or on teachers and other staff members for that matter.
Psychologists know that typical responses to major life changes include grief and loss. At these School Changes meetings, it is clear these impending closures have induced feelings of sadness and uncertainty, a strong psychological response to a major life change.
For example, several young women from Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy cried at the community meeting, detailing how much they felt loved and connected at their school. They fear the changes the proposal creates for them: a choice to attend Ann Richards — a girl’s school on the opposite side of the city, already at capacity — or enroll in a dual-gender school, which they do not want.
These very real feelings of loss and grief are further exacerbated in communities that have been underserved and neglected for decades. Decades of research has shown that school closures and consolidations primarily affect minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods, disintegrating small communities and inciting trauma in their wake.
The proposed school closures and consolidations in Austin have the potential to displace at least 4,100 students. Nearly 130 out of every 1,000 of these students are black, 89 out of every 1,000 students are Latino, and 41 out of every 1,000 students are white. A majority of these students come from tight-knit communities on the east side of Austin. Many are economically disadvantaged.
A study of major closings in the Chicago Public School District found that not only were communities dismantled, but a serious source of stability for children was eliminated. Long-standing student, parent and teacher relationships were disrupted. Children were separated from friends, and a significant — both physical and psychological — center of stability for students was done away with.
Even though the School Changes scenario seeks to provide better learning environments and inspire academic opportunities for all students, it disrupts children’s place of safety and stability. There has been no meaningful attempt to mitigate the psychological trauma of school closures that risk leaving children, especially minority children and those in East Austin, extremely vulnerable.
The AISD mantra of “reimagine, reinvest, reinvent” would be better served to reimagine children at the core and reinvest in its students’ mental health and well-being. This reinvention would promote a school strategy that does not harm the students that it serves, and address the mistreatment experienced by students in the eastern crescent, an area that stretches from East Austin to the eastern edges of North and South Austin.
We know that AISD did not create the School Changes document with the intention of hurting students. However, what school district leaders failed to do is recognize the unintended consequences of a well-intended proposal. Instead, a comprehensive, holistic approach to school change must place each child’s well-being at its axis. Decades of research highlights school closures and the negative effect on academics and community.
Psychology brings to light the psychological harm inflicted on children in response to such a major life change. Let us place the students at the center of the circle, the center of the conversation, and build a proposal around them. Listen to the baby.
Annika Olson is the assistant director of policy research in the Institute of Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.