What Happens to a Neighborhood When a School Closes? – Next City

The author, Andre Perry, returns to his kindergarten classroom at Johnston Elementary School. The school closed in 2012 and is now a business and community incubator.

Photo by Ian McAllister and Mark Hoelscher

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What Happens to a Neighborhood When a School Closes?

​Author and scholar Andre Perry digs into how one shuttered elementary school in a majority-Black neighborhood has maintained its community connections.

Story by Andre PerryTwitter

Published on May 18, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities,” by Andre Perry, published by Brookings Institution Press. In it, the author takes readers on a tour of six Black-majority cities whose assets and strengths are radically undervalued — a legacy of the structural racism that has characterized American capitalism. Here, he revisits his former primary school in Wilkinsburg, outside of Pittsburgh, which closed in 2012 and has found new life as a business and community incubator.

Mom’s husband possessed a car, a luxury for families on my block. My brothers, friends, and I bobbed joyously on the sidewalk next to his tan sedan, ecstatic about the first day of school at Johnston Elementary in Wilkinsburg in 1975. That tan car and that first day are some of my earliest memories growing up in Wilkinsburg. Usually, Teddy left for work before the break of dawn. But that day, he must have wanted to extend to us that luxury and celebrate our first day of school. After a three-month summer break, the day after Labor Day represented an un-calendared holiday in the ’hood. In Black America, an education represents freedom in a literal and metaphorical way—a real opportunity to escape the hardships of life.

Abolitionist, statesman, and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass once said that denying a person an education means adding another link in the chain of their servitude. Quoting his owner in his book Life of an American Slave, Douglass wrote, “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” Mom would always tell us to get as much education as we could. She didn’t necessarily show us how in deed; she only had an eighth-grade education. But she always encouraged the kids toward academic achievement.

It was the month before I turned five. Knowing me, I probably clung to my brother Kevin’s side. I remember the sense of security he provided. And Kevin already had two years of school under his belt, so he was accustomed to school; that day meant something different for him. My lifelong friend Dave Brown, who was also starting kindergarten with me, joined us beside the car, along with a few other children on the block. I remember piling inside Teddy’s car, sans seatbelt, with our parents in the front.

I have a vivid memory of passing the school as we found a place to park. We all moved to the driver’s side window. Jaws dropped as we slowly passed the sturdy, three-storied, concrete facility, which sat along one of the busiest intersections in town just off the highway. I remember thinking the school was enormous. In reality, it was fairly large. The entire facility takes up 45,000 square feet and housed twenty 900-square-foot classrooms, a playground, and ample parking space.

Whereas the trip to the school was rowdy, we held silence on our walk up the steps, in awe of the school. I recall my anxiety and how I looked for Kevin; when he was nowhere to be found, I clutched Mom’s hand for support. The concrete steps leading up to the entrance seemed so big at the time, and they probably were for a five-year-old. But Mom was there for me. Looking back, schools represented some of the most loving and violent places in my life. In high school, the regular fights in Wilkinsburg reflected a divestment of the civic and social infrastructure of Wilkinsburg. However, I deeply treasure the memories of parents rallying for their children throughout my time in Wilkinsburg schools.

The Crisis of Social Infrastructure

Schools are linchpins of a community’s overall physical landscape and what researcher Eric Klinenberg defines as social infrastructure: the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact. Schools in cities are located mostly for convenience. People can walk or drive to them fairly easily. It’s why we use them as polling stations and for neighborhood association meetings. Many students have fun on the playgrounds when the school is closed. In addition, a school’s vitality helps support the economy; they employ numerous workers, many of whom are middle-class professionals. And they help hold the history and culture of a place through yearbooks, trophy cases, and photo archives. School traditions often connect one generation to the next, providing a sense of community stability and cohesion.

They can provide social and emotional support for educational and noneducational purposes. And they help shape residents’ identity. It’s not uncommon for people to try to figure out other people by asking what school they attended. Schools go well beyond helping develop youth for citizenship and the workforce. Schools bring people together. They help us organize our communities. However, many schools are falling apart or closing, sending our social infrastructure into a tailspin.

“When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors,” writes Klinenberg in his book Palaces for the People. “When degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves.”

In 2013, the federal government estimated that schools nationwide needed a $550 billion investment to bring them up to standard just from deferred maintenance issues—damage from postponing repairs. In addition, many districts are closing schools due to low enrollments. Of the 22,101 public schools that have closed since 2004, 3,927 (17 percent) of them were in Black-majority census tracts—and 3,395 of those schools (86 percent) were in urban areas. If a district has to close a school, something else needs to fill the educational, economic, and social voids. These needs don’t go away because there are fewer children in an area. So what do you do with the community asset when a school does close? What do you replace it with? How do you leverage the building, the playground, and the meeting space?

I walked up the Johnston School steps again more than forty years later for the writing of this book. Traffic streamed by in the morning, making it difficult to park. The school still felt vast as I walked up the staircase and entered the spacious foyer that doubled as an auditorium. Ornate ivory columns buttressed the balcony I had leaned over as a third and fourth grader. The openness invited me to run the halls, but my old teachers’ instructions were still exerting sway. I walked dutifully, instead, to my old kindergarten classroom, in room 5.

I felt again the warmth of Ms. Hogan, my teacher, a young African-American woman and the anxious knot in my stomach dissolving when I first saw the books, play spaces, and other kids in class. Now, butterflies fluttered in my belly from seeing the white ceramic sink and fountain I sipped from as a child. I recalled how proud I was of my very own cubby where my favorite yellow raincoat hung. Nothing could diffuse the self-importance of this forty-eight-year-old so swiftly as recalling my five-year-old self.

But this time around, there weren’t any children in the classroom. No one read books in the library or played basketball in the gymnasium during my visit. Kids weren’t playing with the blocks or puppets. The classroom held materials for children, but they were more or less being stored, just in case. The only buzz came from a filtration system of a fish tank nestled in a corner. The loneliness of being one of a few adults in the room eventually replaced the nostalgia that had washed over me.

In June 2012, the Wilkinsburg School District decided to close Johnston after enrollment declined to 180 students, less than half the student population when I attended. Students were assigned to the two other elementary schools in the district at the time. In addition to moving the students, forty-three employees were furloughed. “School directors had to close a $3.1 million budget shortfall created by factors including statewide budget cuts, increases in school district employees’ health costs and declining enrollment,” Bruce Dakan, director of business affairs, told the Tribune-Review. In March 2013, the Wilkinsburg School District was placed on the state’s financial watch list, an early-warning system created by the state legislature to identify districts besieged with budgetary difficulties and revenue shortages.

The Wilkinsburg School District had been struggling fiscally and academically for more than a decade when it decided to close Johnston. Fewer children lived in the district than had in the past, which meant fewer dollars coming into the district. The district had no choice but to cover costs with local revenues by increasing taxes, which makes the city less attractive for prospective homebuyers and residents.

The closing of Johnston didn’t stop the bleeding. In 2015, the Pittsburgh Business Times ranked the Wilkinsburg School District at number 492 of 493 school districts in the state, largely based on academic performance. As a fiscal and academic stopgap measure, the district agreed in 2015 to contract with the Pittsburgh Public School District (a separate, much larger school district) to educate all the Wilkinsburg’s seventh-through twelfth-grade students at the Westinghouse High School located in nearby Homewood, a neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh, in the 2016–2017 school year. This was a way for the district to save money, giving Wilkinsburg taxpayers some relief. The move made the border between Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh blurrier than it already was. The Wilkinsburg School District continued to educate the students in the primary grades.

Although families always used addresses of other family members to cross into either Wilkinsburg or Pittsburgh schools, moving the students was controversial, as beefs between the two neighborhoods were historic and often violent. (I have not-so-fond memories of getting chased on foot to get home to Wilkinsburg after attending parties in Homewood.)

While the threat of neighborhood rivalries resulting from the merger was real, neighborhood fights never really came to pass. School and community leaders took many steps to prevent major conflicts. The cohorts of students that transferred, seemingly unified under the Westinghouse banner, suggests you can break a legacy of community rivalry with the careful social integration of schools through mergers. But not having fights in the hallways is not the way we should measure success.

“It’s a shame that they were willing to settle for sending their kids to Westinghouse, because if there was one school in Western Pennsylvania, if not the state, that is academically as poor as Wilkinsburg, it’s Westinghouse,” Jake Haulk, president of the conservative think tank Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, told the Pittsburgh City Paper.

“I’m not sure their kids are going to be uplifted by being around kids who are failing as bad as they are, if not worse.”

Haulk has a point. The Washington Post reported that, at 9 percent, Wilkinsburg actually had a higher percentage of high school students who were proficient in math in 2014, as compared to Westinghouse at 3 percent. Both schools posted comparable SAT scores, below the national mean, and both fell in the bottom 3 percentile in the state. The Wilkinsburg-Westinghouse merger exemplifies research that shows most students who are displaced from closures due to academic reasons don’t end up in better schools. However, school districts don’t have the time or resources to keep open a school that doesn’t have the enrollment to support it. A school enrolled at half its capacity drains districts’ budgets, throttling programs in other schools, which also puts a drag on a community’s potential growth. The reality is that there are times that schools must close for fiscal and academic reasons. But when it comes to Black schools, shuttering them seldom comes with alternatives that give families better educational options. In the case of my old school, Johnston Elementary is now Community Forge, a nonprofit business incubator dedicated to speeding up the growth of Wilkinsburg start-ups.

The Birth of an Incubator

Accelerators and incubators, on the surface, seem like reasonable replacements for shuttered schools. Even with a decline in Wilkinsburg’s school-age population, the town still needs educational services for children and adults. In addition, Wilkinsburg’s overall development could be assisted by business growth. In particular, the town needs Black-owned businesses to grow to the point where they can generate wealth, hire community members, and innovate products. Theoretically, incubators can fill an acute professional development need through business support that’s not being offered or not accessible to locals. However, because incubators and accelerators have historically been shown to promote a “bro” culture that mirrors the pale male tech industry, we should think twice about what kind of incubator lands in a Black neighborhood. The wrong one could make matters worse for Black residents who’ve already been made vulnerable to tech booms and other new market explosions that increase housing costs and displace residents.

In some ways, Michael Skirpan, cofounder of Community Forge, is what people think of as the personification of a gentrifier. He’s a thirty-something White guy, dressed grungy, seemingly in need of a haircut. He studied philosophy and physics as an undergraduate and possesses a Ph.D. in computer science. He looks like the kind of person about whom residents would say, “What’s this White guy doing here?”

An aerial view of the Johnston Elementary School building in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Ian McAllister and Mark Hoelscher)

Skirpan was reared not too far away, in the Mon Valley, an area composed of small, rusted-out steel towns along the banks of the Monongahela River approximately thirty miles south of downtown Pittsburgh. Not dissimilar in size and substance from Wilkinsburg, the Mon Valley towns of Donora, Belle Vernon, Monessen, and Braddock also have proud histories of economic vitality and self- sufficiency. They have current and former residents who brag about the towns’ heydays in the 1940s and 1950s when traffic was as thick as the smoke that poured out the stacks from the steel production. Now, abandoned brick buildings stand as monuments to a bygone era. Skirpan probably feels somewhat at home in Johnston School.

Skirpan’s grandfather was a labor organizer in the 1960s who successfully fought for higher wages and better conditions, after a period in the 1940s and 1950s when workers gave their blood, sweat, and tears to supply steel during wartime. But the industry didn’t keep pace with their overseas competitors’ technological advancements, and, therefore, the mills began to lay off workers and shut down operations.

“While steelmakers in Europe and Japan invested in the newer technologies, steelmakers at home doubled down and reinvested in the old ways,” went a 2014 NPR profile of the Mon Valley. American companies didn’t adapt. Communities bore the brunt of waning competitiveness and productivity, and the towns withered alongside the mills. Skirpan embodies this history. The need for innovation and adaptability, as well as a penchant to organize people, is in Skirpan’s blood.

According to its mission statement, Community Forge seeks to “grow an inclusive Community Space dedicated to creating opportunities for Wilkinsburg by supporting small business, promoting learning, contributing to neighborhood wellbeing, and cultivating regional partnerships.” Initially, Skirpan, along with his wife and friends, conceived of a space to host educational, cultural, and civic activities, but they eventually decided to turn Community Forge into an incubator that seeks social as well as business returns on his investment. “What we’re incubating here is not just about money,” he told me. It is also about “incubating community.”

So in 2017, Skirpan went door-to-door and hosted a cookout, asking residents what kind of offerings they wanted to see in the shut-down Johnston Elementary. Not surprising, most residents wanted more activities for children, to fill the void created when the school closed. However, Wilkinsburg also needs businesses to grow at a scale such that they can hire local residents and boost the economy as well as offer hope to aspiring entrepreneurs. So Skirpan set out to meet that need by acquiring Johnston School to host a unique kind of incubator: one that blended business and community development.

Being Wilkinsburg, there were a few potholes in the road. Initially, Skirpan was unable to secure a loan to purchase the building. That’s when XPogo, an extreme pogo sticking company, entered the picture. (If you’re wondering what extreme pogo sticking is, let alone what it has to do with Wilkinsburg, you’re not alone. Let’s just say these rocket-like, tricked out pogo sticks aren’t the childhood staple I may have played with on Johnston’s playground as a child.)

XPogo was also interested in purchasing the building: the big playground we played kickball and basketball on would make for an eye- catching, outdoor showroom for an extreme sport company. But nothing says gentrification like an extreme pogo sticking business in the middle of the ’hood. So XPogo backed away from purchasing the building. However, members of its board decided to partner with Skirpan by joining Community Forge’s board of directors, enabling Skirpan to secure a loan to purchase the property in July 2017. As a bonus, Community Forge also secured the kind of highflying tenant (pun intended) that could help pay the mortgage. XPogo has a space in the building.

Soon thereafter, the local nonprofit Gwen’s Girls, an organization dedicated to girls’ empowerment, approached Skirpan about using the space for some of their programming efforts in the area. Gwen’s Girls provides after-school and summer programming, career planning services, as well as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) enrichment to girls in the area. So its leadership looked at the building and vetted Skirpan to make sure he was committed to community and to make sure the building could accommodate the organization’s basic needs. The 900-square-foot classrooms, along with all the security features the school offered, met their expectations. After meeting with Skirpan, Gwen’s Girls committed to leasing two spaces even before Community Forge officially opened its doors in January 2018. In XPogo, a national organization in need of a headquarters, and Gwen’s Girls, a locally respected organization with a history of serving Black communities, Community Forge had secured two very different tenants who could attract other tenants to the building to help pay the bills, which immediately came into view.

“This building is expensive to run because of heating and our interest rate,” Skirpan told me. Erected in 1922, Johnston School isn’t a model of architectural efficiency. The energy and maintenance costs the school district struggled to pay now lay in Skirpan’s hands. Remember, incubators are businesses. The business model literally banks on tenants generating revenue for the space. But he and his board wanted to make sure low-income residents had access to the opportunity—as they should.

“We looked at the numbers and we were like, we could actually give about a third of our tenants some kind of subsidy, and we were able to give a $400 a month subsidy,” he told me.

If a district has to close a school, something else needs to fill the educational, economic, and social voids. These needs don’t go away because there are fewer children in an area. So what do you do with the community asset when a school does close? How do you leverage the building, the playground, and the meeting space?

 Photo by Ian McAllister and Mark Hoelscher

Over the course of a year, Community Forge signed on twenty-four tenant businesses, about half of which are individual owners who share a space. The other half operates in full classrooms. As word got around town of the price break, more prospective tenants applied. More than half of the lessees receive some kind of subsidy to rent space, which costs Community Forge more than they originally had budgeted for. The occupants’ current rents may sustain the costs of the building and the one full-time and one half-time employee Community Forge has on the payroll, but that comes at the expense of the owners’ livelihoods.

“In some way, we’re not sustainable because we [Skirpan and his wife Jacqueline Cameron] give so much volunteer labor. I’ve never been paid on this project.” Skirpan gets by as an adjunct faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University. While in-kind services is part of their business model, admittedly the arrangement is not good for his own bottom line. This puts pressure on tenants to generate revenues so they can pay full freight or even invest back into the incubator.

Businesses Steeped in the Community

The businesses Community Forge incubates or houses are diverse. In addition to XPogo and Gwen’s Girls, Community Forge incubates GoPhleb, LLC, a mobile phlebotomy company; Barrels to Beethoven, a music school dedicated to preserving steel pan instruction; Pittsburgh Housing Development Association, an organization that helps low- and moderate-income residents purchase a home; Treelady Studios, a music studio; Steel City Indie, a comprehensive media company specializing in films, documentaries, web services, and special events; Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists of America, a chapter of the national Democratic Socialists of America that does local political organizing; and Global Human Performance, which offers athletic training, among other things. There are also several individual artists specializing in visual, conceptual, and therapeutic artwork. In total, two dozen ethnically diverse entrepreneurs and business owners have signed leases.

Johnston’s conversion from a school to an incubator is still very much under construction. Cans of putty and paint litter the gritty hallways. Semblances of the old school are everywhere. The signs of transformation remain in many of the classrooms. Each room has a different look and feel, depending on the needs and the character of the business owner. In my old first-grade classroom, now Barrels to Beethoven, an assortment of steel drums are meticulously ordered in rows from the front to the back of the classroom. The sunlight glistens on the silver drums, giving the room an almost magical ambiance. In stark contrast, Treelady Studios feels like a warm, private home studio, minus the fireplace, of a famous producer. (The company does have a Grammy award on its résumé.) Audio boards and computers surround a single seat in the center of the room. Speakers are hung neatly from the ceiling, giving a decorative feel to an otherwise functional space.

Enter the room of the K-Theatre Dance Complex on the second floor and you’ll see the black vinyl laminate flooring that you typically find in dance studios. Standalone barres line the windows looking outward toward speeding cars whisking along the nearby highway down below. Mirrors line one of the walls where chalkboards used to be, held up by the gutters that once held chalk. The original chalkboards on an adjacent wall were preserved, revealing a list of dance exercises for the day. Above the mirrors and chalkboards and assorted images of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, images of Misty Copeland and other dance greats are plastered randomly over the white walls, photographed at every turn, twist, and arabesque. You get a sense that the pictures project the dreams and inspirations of owner and operator Kontara Morphis.

Andre Perry talks to Michael Skirpan, co-founder of Community Forge. (Photo by Ian McAllister and Mark Hoelscher)

A Pittsburgh native, Morphis attended the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, locally referred to as CAPA. There, she studied dance, she says, learning the basics of ballet, jazz, modern, and tap. After graduation, she took master classes with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, and the cast of The Lion King Broadway musical, and performed under the direction of Norma Jean Barnes and Staycee Pearl with Xpressions Dance Academy, a world-renowned dance company. As founder and artistic director of K-Theatre, Morphis teaches ballet, jazz, modern, hip-hop, tap, and theatre to students aged seven to seventeen. Morphis says Community Forge has supported her business from the day she became a tenant in January 2018, by placing her in funding networks, assisting in grant applications, and connecting her to other people and resources in the building.

Morphis says she treats her classroom studio like a conservatory, in that she teaches theory and history in addition to dance. But she is very open to teaching youth who don’t yet consider themselves dancers. “I’m really into working with students who don’t really know that they have the ability to dance,” she told me. “I know the outcomes that occur when children are exposed to dance.” Morphis enjoys teaching students who need opportunities to develop and mature in other aspects of their lives besides dance.

“It’s just like a family environment, so once you’re at K-Theatre it’s like home,” said Calina Womack, one of her former students, now the director’s assistant. “I learned how to come out of my shell more … We tend to stay out of the spotlight for fear of being shunned for being Black,” said Womack. Children need stages to dance and shine on in spite of the outside world that doesn’t see value in them. Still, just like every other business in the region, tenants must connect to other customers, revenue sources, and broader economic forces in the region to grow. Morphis charges $60 per month per child for tuition. With less than two years in operation, it’s hard to envision the scale at which her firm can grow.

Because many of Community Forge’s less-established firms are community-facing service organizations, their growth is somewhat constrained by residents’ abilities to pay.

Creating a New Kind of School

“Every time I come back to this building, I have a flood of memories,” Erin Perry (no relation) told me. Perry is the executive director of the Legacy Arts Project in Pittsburgh. She rented a space for one of her art programs in Community Forge during its first summer of operations. Like me, she also attended kindergarten in room 5, but a decade later, when a married Ms. Hogan still presided but under her married name of Mrs. Smith.

Perry has fond memories of her unusual accomplishments while at Johnston. “I have to humbly admit that I was the stunts champion,” Perry crowed. As a child, Perry took gymnastics lessons, and in gym class at school, Perry showed off to her peers’ and teachers’ delight. “I had my picture on the wall that said I was the stunts champion,” she says, beaming.

She is still performing for Johnston. In the summer of 2018, Community Forge hosted her summer arts program that brought approximately fifty children to her old stomping grounds. As an art administrator, she finds creative ways to forge positive memories and build community. “Art is life. It might sound clichéd,” Perry says, “but art is the act of creating. Every moment we have the opportunity to create something.”

Maybe we should look at Community Forge as a different kind of school, one that demands state, federal, and local funding. Leaders in cities like Wilkinsburg must address the adult educational and workforce development needs that include workforce and business training. In addition, families still need educational services close by, so they work while their children get access to enrichment activities. We’re in an era of lifelong learning. From a public policy perspective, what we consider a school must change to meet the demands of local communities. Community Forge can offer other municipalities with shuttered schools a model.

Communities may not be able to afford to keep elementary schools open, but they also can’t afford to have schools sitting dormant, waiting for outsiders to recognize their assets. Sure, there are other possibilities: grocery stores, job training centers, drug counseling centers, manufacturing plants, art galleries, and more. I even wonder if Community Forge can better take advantage of the traffic that continues to stream by at rush hour. Nevertheless, incubators can help innovate how cities repurpose valuable community assets to meet the economic, education, and social infrastructure needs of the city.

“Are arts for other people, or can arts exist without an audience?” Perry asks, sharing a question she’s constantly grappling with. However, her reflections also inform why we must think carefully about repurposing schools.

“I’m of the mind that art does exist without an audience, that it doesn’t always have to be for someone else,” she says, adding that, for children, we need to create spaces that convey that “who they are is enough.”

A school can exist without an abundance of children. Perry sees the need for Community Forge. The people of Wilkinsburg need a safe place to grow, heal, and develop. Community-focused incubators can become part of the social infrastructure that’s needed in Black-majority cities.

Reprinted from “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities,” by Andre Perry with permission from Brookings Institution Press, © 2020 by Brookings Institution.

Andre Perry is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. His research focuses on race and structural inequality, community engagement, education, economic inclusion and workforce development.

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