James Ryans remembers walking to Collins K-8 School from his house on nearby Holley Street more than 50 years ago and not wanting to leave.
While his mother worked two jobs, Collins was his home. The teachers challenged him not to allow his shyness to keep him from participating in class, and the after-school choir and reading programs kept him there long after the dismissal bell.
He said he believes his experience at the school helped mold him into the person he grew to be – a pharmacist in New York, a sports consultant and an award-winning scout for the New York Knicks.
When he heard Collins was one of four schools slated to close for budget issues, Ryans said he couldn’t help but feel it was like erasing history.
“It’s part of my background – that’s where I learned to read and write, that’s where I got familiar with the world faculties,” said Ryans, 67. “You want your history to be there for you, to (be) something you can count on and look back on. You’re taking away history, and I don’t think that’s right.”
Since the Richmond County Board of Education gave initial approval March 11 to close Collins and three other schools to save money, many people in the community have feared what will happen to the legacy of the historic school and to the neighborhood left behind.
The potential closures in Richmond County are on a much smaller scale than the sweeping actions that shut down 49 schools in Chicago and 23 in Philadelphia last year. However, Pauline Lipman, the director of the Collaborative for Equity Justice in Education at University of Illinois at Chicago, said much of the social impact seen in those cases also translates to smaller communities.
Closures often occur in neighborhoods such as the one around Collins, with low-income minority students where schools have generational meaning, Lipman said.
Their absence can often destabilize the already struggling communities, where parents often come to the schools for activities or to use resources.
Collins had recently established a computer lab where parents can work on résumés, do job searches and check out books on parenting skills.
“Closing a school is a very drastic move,” Lipman said. “Schools are not McDonald’s. It’s not another franchise, and you just go get your hamburger somewhere else. Those schools have real, meaningful relationships with the communities.”
School closures occur across the country for varying reasons, from cost savings to solutions for poor performance.
In Collins’ case, the board approved its closure because of dwindling enrollment, partially in the wake of this summer’s demolition of the Cherry Tree Crossing housing complex.
The school has lost about 150 students since August as families have moved out of the complex, and enrollment is currently at about 320, Principal Thomas Norris said.
consultants who proposed the closures predicted the school will be down to
150 students by the fall, Norris contests that figure. He said a survey of parents conducted this month showed 218 have committed to return next year. Because the school also receives students from outside the zone, Norris said that number will be closer to 300.
Board member Jimmy Atkins said he understands the emotional connection the community has to the school, but in a year with a $23 million budget shortfall, it doesn’t make sense to keep an under-enrolled school running.
According to data provided by education consultant Bill Montgomery, the district will save $714,000 the first year and $3.5 million in five years by closing the school.
“The board has said that we would be open to the idea of opening the school back up if the time arises,” Atkins said. “That’s why we’re not going to sell the school, we’re not going to condemn it, we’re going to keep it up so we can use it later if needed.”
It’s unclear, though, how soon the district might need the Collins building again.
Walton Communities, a Marietta, Ga., based development company, was selected by the city in October to build a modern, mixed-income apartment complex on the Cherry Tree Crossing site.
Dave Loeffel, Walton Communities’ managing director of affordable housing, said the five- to eight-year project is still in development, but if financing is secured this year, residents could begin moving in by summer 2016.
Laverne Moore, 67, who attended Collins in the 1950s, also said its rich history cannot be ignored.
The original Steed Street School was formed in the early 1900s by a partnership of churches to educate black children and was modeled after the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute founded by Lucy Craft Laney.
It was absorbed by the Board of Education in the 1940s and renamed after longtime Principal Ursula Collins in 1951.
“Cities are changing and communities are changing, and often times a lot of the history gets abolished with the changes that sometimes we call progress,” said Moore, a 40-year member of the National Black Theater in Harlem, N.Y. “But it leaves a lot behind. That’s the part that means so much to people. It was like an incubator of really great people.”
Alfa Anderson, a Lucy C. Laney High School graduate and retired New York educator, said Collins could play a role in revitalizing the community by bringing business partnerships into the school to work with students and provide cultural relevance for the neighborhood.
Instead of closing the school and moving students elsewhere, Anderson said, the district could capitalize on its small enrollment by offering more one-on-one attention to students and building the school into a drawing point for others outside its zone.
“You’re not just closing the school, because the school is bricks and mortar,” Anderson said. “You’re really destroying an institution that has deep roots and relevance for a community.”