A school shuts down and no one asks, “Where are those kids now and what are we doing for them?” Amanda Keller-Konya and Dennis Danziger bear witness to schools that have been shut down.
Photographs by Amanda Keller-Konya
Text by Dennis Danziger
It’s never a good time to be a poor in America. But these days it sucks.
And if you’re poor and send your children to public school, well, your kids are pretty much toast.
For instance, this summer the Chicago Board of Education with the blessing of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel closed 49 public schools, mostly in low income neighborhoods, leaving some communities without a single public school.
And more recently Philadelphia Mayor Nutter defended his city’s closure of 23 schools and layoffs of thousands of workers while Philly invests $400 million to build a state prison. At least the Philly kids who are receiving a substandard education will have some place to go if things go badly.
But it’s not just big city schools that are closing; all over our country schools are being shuttered. And for various reasons: environmental hazards, demographic shifts and the school choice movement (which allows charter schools and other privatizers to help themselves to taxpayer dollars while shunning special needs students and all other difficult cases).
As a public school teacher, I’ve had a great front row seat to the systematic devastation which is one reason photographer Amanda Keller-Konya’s photographs so resonate for me.
Keller-Konya has documented permanent school closures in California, Idaho, New Mexico, Texas and Washington in her exhibit entitled School’s Out, Forever?
Below are ten of Ms. Keller-Konya’s photographs followed by my comments. Schools which were thriving public spaces once closed become off limits to the public and in many cases begin a cycle of neighborhood deterioration as Keller-Konya’s work so poignantly illustrates. So not only do kids no longer have a nearby school to attend, their neighborhood gets trashed.
And we are all complicit.
“Newcomer” Belmont Learning Center
For several summers I taught at Belmont High School’s Newcomer School, a school within a school for students who recently arrived in LA. I taught Basic English, a class that met five hours a day, five days a week. Some of these kids came from Mexico and Central America, others from Korea and China. All learned English together. I felt as if I were teaching on Ellis Island – West and the experience brought home for me what my grandparents must have experienced when they arrived in NYC from Russia in the early 1900s.
While I taught at Belmont HS, the Los Angeles Unified School District had plans to build a new Belmont HS to relieve overcrowding. But during construction of this much-needed downtown school, planners discovered that the new campus was being built on a fault line that could generate a 6.7 earthquake and that its location was previously home to oil wells. Pouring concrete over contaminated soil might block the methane gas and cause an explosion. Not a great place for kids.
After a couple of decades of mismanagement and a quarter of a billion dollars spent, a new high school was built. Of course, for that same money, the LAUSD could have built half a dozen state-of-the-art schools and hired a lot of first-rate teachers to teach in them.
“Classroom Management” Elks River Public School
I shiver when I hear jargon like “classroom management.” In a sane world people would call this “getting your students to behave so you can teach.” Every time I hear “classroom management” I know the speaker is someone who bailed out of the classroom and took on a consulting or administrative position—most likely because they could not get their students interested in what he or she had to say. Here’s what “Classroom Management” looks like in Elks River, Idaho when most everyone involved in making a school successful, fails.
“Endless Possibilites” Renaissance Charter Academy
“Endless Headaches” might be a better title for this photo because that’s what Renaissance Charter Academy proved to be. And, oh yes, it existed for all of two years. One of the charter school movement’s best kept secrets: A lot of them fail. Just up and disappear like pop-up Halloween stores. Except pop-up Halloween stores serve a brief purpose beyond lining pockets.
In 2004 RCA recruited many of its students from Palisades Charter High School, an affluent suburban LA school, where I was teaching at the time. The kids who fled to RCA struck me as being, well, stoners, upper-middle class and wealthy kids who liked to draw, paint, dance and make music videos but didn’t have the stomach for say, chemistry, US History and PE.
I was invited to teach at this new charter, but I knew from the get-go this sucker was doomed because I’d seen its future director in action. One day at Palihi students stole some of his pricey equipment. And how did this future charter director react? He ditched school for a few days, shut off his phone and quit answering his email. And since he didn’t leave lesson plans behind, his students just sat in his class and looked at the walls till he recovered from his tantrum and returned to school.
A few years after this incident, the LAUSD handed this teacher and his buddies their own school. Albeit one that in its short history conducted its classes in a medical building, a church, a hotel, residential homes, a YMCA and even a deli.
Charter school directors aren’t all like that, but those who call charter schools panacea seem to think they’re all god-like; and I’m not sure why except that they’ve had great (nonsensical) propaganda propelling their missions.
“Do You Like Me?” Allendale Elementary School
Reading, writing and arithmetic are critical skills taught in elementary school. But perhaps more important to most elementary school students is the question posed by this grade schooler: “Do you like me?”
In just one year, Pasadena Unified School District closed four elementary schools including, the above, Allendale Elementary. Perhaps the question should not be whether the District likes or dislikes this students but whether or not the District even cares about her. If they did, why did they shut down so many of her schools?
“Absent” Taos Municipal School District Warehouse
Is it sculpture? A yard sale? Is it trash? Should these desks be donated to Lawrence O’Donnell’s K.I.N.D. Fund (Kids in Need of Desks) that he promotes on his MSNBC Show, “The Last Word”? Desk for kids in Malawi, not, for instance my Venice High Class where I have 50 students in my Expository Composition class but only have 42 desks, 4 chairs and limited window sill space.
Honestly, I’d like to get my hands on some of these desks. Too bad they are about 700 miles away, left to rot and neglected like too many of our kids.
“No Children Please” St. Catherine’s Indian School
The St. Catherine’s Indian School located in Santa Fe, New Mexico opened its doors in 1887 and went out of business in 1998 when this Catholic school dedicated to educating Native American students ran out of cash. If only the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament who taught here had some hedge fund connections. I guess it’s a case of teachers spending too much time in chapel and not enough time out there networking.
Keller-Konya’s “No Children Please” reminds me of what one of my colleagues once whispered to me at one of those all-day professional development meetings (that drive me to tears), “If we could just get rid of the students we could get a lot done around here.”
“It’s in the Books” St. Catherine’s Indian School
A framed copy of “It’s in the Books” hangs on my wall. As a seventh grader at Pershing Jr. High School in Houston, Texas I tried out on the outdoor courts for the “Small Boys” team. After making a lay up in the warm-up line on a metal fan-shaped backboard like the one pictured here, I sneaked a peek at Coach Dean. My fate was in his hands. He nodded back. And I knew I’d made the squad. Which at age 12 was the only thing I really cared about.
To me there are few things as heartbreaking as an abandoned playground or a rusted backboard. Where once there were children and hope, energy, desire, drive, and ambition now all that’s left are symbols of a nation that has given up on educating the children of the have-nots, all our children.
“Jumping Ropes” 98th Street Elementary School
This image made my heart sing. This is what a vibrant school playground should look like. Airborne kids jumping rope, defying gravity. Kids being kids. But on closer inspection I realized I was looking at a photograph of a painting, not at actual children. And when I turned the page to:
“Puzzled” 98th Street Elementary School, Los Angeles, California
I saw reality – a ratty, abandoned elementary school blacktop where children once played where now there’s nothing left but a basketball lying on an unused, decaying playground.
A school shuts down, kids leave, urban blight moves in and no one asks, “Where are those kids now and what are we doing for them?”
“Swinger” William E. Kettler Elementary School, Huntington Beach, California