By Aerika Brittian, PhD
Closing a school represents a significant loss of resources to a community, especially for under resourced neighborhoods. In terms of geography and urban planning, there is now a physical space that is no longer occupied. Research on the Broken Windows Effect tells us that abandoned buildings symbolize lack of worth to a community, both to its residents and city officials. With regard to the well being of children, I ask, what message might an abandoned building send to neighborhood youth? What might urban decay do to a young person’s sense of worth? Perhaps these spaces can be repurposed in ways that revitalize communities.
Not only do school closings represent a significant loss of resources to a neighborhood, these events have critical implications for an individual student’s academic achievement and mental health. Generally, studies show that qualities that are important for student’s educational success decline during critical school transitions; for example, the transition from elementary school to middle school, and from middle school to high school. Some of these qualities include motivation for schoolwork and the value of education. For youth of color, studies show that transitioning to a school that is less racially diverse compared to their previous school can negatively impact a student’s sense of school belonging to that school, one factor that is associated with school drop-out. In addition, uncertainty and instability are generally related to higher levels of anxiety. Given what know about school transitions, in general, I wonder what this means for students who attended one of the targeted schools. What resources and supports have been put in place to ensure a successful transition for these students? Have we made thoughtful and careful decisions regarding students’ development and the community context in thinking about where students would be redistributed?
Overall, we know that students adjust better to the learning environment when they have a strong social support system. It is likely that school closings will disrupt students’ support systems, including separating them from caring teachers and supportive peers, and possibly further contributing to a series of events that may already be stressful for youth, including typical developmental milestones for adolescents (puberty, physical growth, brain development and cognition, increased self-awareness and self-consciousness). In addition, normal school progression and promotion may be compounded with transitioning to a new school setting where peers, teachers, and administration know very little about the incoming student. Therefore, it is critical for parents and educators to work together to ensure that students have the support that they need to excel academically.
I expect that we do not want Chicago’s youth to merely survive childhood and adolescence; we want them to thrive, excel, and become engaged citizens. Therefore, now that the decision has been made, how do we as adults intend to support youth during this potentially difficult transition? Are we making conscious efforts to ensure that students feel that they are a priority and are our most valuable resources?
Aerika Brittian is an assistant professor of educational psychology at the UIC College of Education.