An Open Letter To Springfield from Ralph Plank

An open letter to Springfield from Ralph Plank, former Springfield school board member from 1998-2004 regarding the SPS bond proposal, April 4.

Success in school is the only way most children can have a bright future, and the well being of the community is tied to children’s success. In smaller neighborhood schools kids don’t fall through the cracks. Save them now or pay later when they might be on welfare or in prison.

Neighborhoods bring people together, provide fellowship, give identity, and are a source of pride and safe haven for children and adults. Strong neighborhoods make strong communities. The heart of a neighborhood is its public elementary school.

all students benefit from smaller schools but the impoverished kids especially benefit

54.4% of R12 students receive free and reduced lunch. These students generally have lower achievement than affluent kids. Overwhelming research shows that smaller elementary schools improve academic achievement, attendance and attitudes, while lowering dropouts and negative social behaviors including violence. All kids benefit, but especially impoverished kids. A summary of over 40 years of national research on school size and achievement found that as schools become larger, test scores drop. Elementary schools should be no larger than 300 for impoverished kids and 500 for affluent kids
(Leithwood and Jantzi, (2009), A Review of Empirical Evidence About School Size Effects).…

In 2001 the district contracted with noted researcher Dr. John Alspaugh who ran a scientific study of Springfield’s elementary schools to determine the effect of school size on student achievement that was published nationally in 2003. He found all students benefit from smaller schools but the impoverished kids especially benefit. The impoverished kids had higher achievement in the smallest schools and the larger the school the lower the test scores.

Westport, a high-poverty R12 school with nearly 500 students, has some of the lowest test scores of any elementary. The district is modeling it as both a large impoverished elementary school and K-8 configuration for this bond.

Despite research and Springfield’s experience, in phase 1 & 2 of the bond, the district proposes closing or abandoning 11 smaller high-poverty elementary neighborhood schools with attendance of generally less than 300 and consolidate into schools of 450-500 students and 4 K-8 configurations with total attendance of between 850-900. In addition, they want to expand another 3 smaller impoverished elementaries into 450-500 student mega-schools. This will have a devastating impact on student achievement and neighborhoods. The very neighborhoods the city is spending our money to improve. E.g. Zone 1 Blitz, etc.

Many historic older buildings are actually far superior in their construction methods and materials than new construction

In total they want to abandon 15 buildings that are working schools now, that were just upgraded with new electrical, heating and air conditioning systems that are in bonds we will be paying off for about another decade.

When Doling, a small impoverished neighborhood school was closed in 2001, dozens of owner-occupied homes went up for sale, property values dropped and now there are many rentals. The Doling kids were moved to a larger impoverished Williams and their test scores plummeted. Lower property values mean less money to the district.

Many historic older buildings are actually far superior in their construction methods and materials than new construction and can be updated with the latest technology like Central High School, Drury and Harvard have been.
The district claims that new construction is less expensive than renovation, but never actually ran any numbers. While I was on the board we included Central as part of a bond in 2000. This project is unique in that the original structure was renovated and a large new wing was constructed. Flintco, the construction manager for Central, tracked the costs and renovation was ⅓ the cost of the new construction. Flintco said if land and site improvements were added, the savings would be roughly ½ the cost. Renovation is ⅓ to ½ the cost of new construction. National data reflects this finding.
(Pennsylvania School Boards Association (2007) Renovate or Replace).
It is deeply troubling that the district is proposing abandoning so many neighborhood schools especially considering these are generally in high-poverty areas where we need smaller neighborhood schools.

I think most of us would agree that many of the district buildings have not been properly maintained. The district claims this bond will make the schools more equitable, but it will actually lower the achievement of the impoverished students making it less equitable for them and more costly in their neighborhoods. Please, will you reject this wasteful, misdirected plan? We must demand that R12 develop a less expensive plan to renovate and support our existing neighborhood schools, thereby making stronger neighborhoods and a stronger community that truly benefits the students.