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Learning at its Best

Lame Duck Schools

 

         There’s a regular occurrence in politics where elected officials have neared the end of their tenure either by reaching the limit of their allowed term/s or being defeated in re-election bids. Their successors have already been chosen, but before the looming takeover the old guard continues to serve in office. This awkward transition period can lead to a focus on the future that disempowers those operating in the present. George W. Bush experienced this “lame duck” phenomenon acutely before vacating the presidency, “in the days before Thanksgiving, Obama began to move — if not to take charge outright, then at least to preview what things will be like when he does take over in January”
(http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1862464,00.html#ixzz2KwF8CYhN). Despite having the most powerful job on the planet for another month, it did not matter what Bush wanted to accomplish, his agenda was meaningless in the face of what and who was to come.

           Baltimore Freedom Academy, where I teach, just lost their own re-election bid. What’s coming next for the staff and students? According to the preliminary renewal report,

…the contract with Freedom Academy Foundation, Inc. to operate the school would terminate at the end of the current school year and the school would remain open for existing students until the end of the SY2013/14 under the operation of City Schools – accepting no new 6th and no new 9th graders for the 2013/14 school year and is recommended for closure at the end of SY2013/14.

          The leader of the free world could do nothing with just a one month lame duck session. The Baltimore Freedom Academy community, admittedly struggling even prior to the closure decision must now navigate a 4 month lame duck session, followed by an additional full year with the public knowledge that the school has no real future. I bring this up not to argue the justness of the charter renewal process or its ultimate decision in our specific case (though those are juicy topics indeed), but to consider what sort of transition is best for kids when schools are closed.

          At BFA, the knowledge of our impending doom has had a tangible impact already on morale. Staff attendance has hit a rough patch and a colleague of mine was recently told by some students that they didn’t care anymore because the school was closing. Tenured teachers who wish to remain in the system will need to take some time typically spent on planning/grading/phone calls home to locate their next placement. Non-tenured teachers have been told that they have a choice between remaining at a school they will no longer have chosen, to be operated by yet unknown people, or they can retire from the system altogether (a not so appealing message to a group of people that includes young talent and commitment which the system should want to maintain and foster). Families are rushed to make unexpected arrangements with inadequate information to secure their next learning community. Current 6th and 9th grade students should they choose to stay are setting themselves up for 3 transitions in 3 years, from their old schools to BFA, from BFA to the City Schools-run version in SY 2013/2014, to wherever they land after the complete closure. The challenges spurred by the charter non-renewal are significant and multifold.

       So why not just close the school in June rather than endure an entire lame duck year? To be honest I do not know the answer to this question and was motivated to write in part to discover the rationale behind the decision. I can speculate a few reasons, the first being that transferring hundreds of students by next fall would be a bureaucratic nightmare for North Ave. and a painful influx for the schools who took displaced kids on. Perhaps the view is that staying in the building with at least some of the same staff will provide a measure of continuity during a difficult stretch. Maybe the drive is economic, they need more time to sell off the property which is on the chopping block according to the new 10 year facilities plan. These decisions are enormously complicated and I wouldn’t purport to have a painless alternative ready to go. I would hope that people have put as much thought into what happens after schools are closed as they have put into the school evaluation process itself, and that whatever plan is in place will be communicated clearly, thoroughly, and immediately to those of us tasked with teaching and supporting kids throughout.

         In 1933 Congress passed the 20th amendment establishing the beginning and ending terms of federal offices. Prior to that, members of congress could sit a full 13 months after losing an election, thus endangering the country’s ability to respond to emergencies. If lame duck congresses are so ineffective they required constitutional limitations, how can lame duck schools operating for extended periods of time be good for kids?

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