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Enrollment losses in cities prompt talk of school closures

Denver’s Hallett Academy has not escaped the enrollment declines facing schools across the U.S. The already-small school has lost nearly 10% of its enrollment since 2019, and is down to 262 students.

But until recently, it has been able to avoid budget cuts — one of many Denver schools propped up by federal relief dollars.

“I didn’t have to cut anybody in this school year,” said Principal Dominique Jefferson, a fact that brought needed stability and support for her predominantly low-income students. “I can’t say enough about what that has meant.”

Next school year, though, Jefferson will have to trim half a million dollars from her budget. That means the only assistant principal will be gone, as will the restorative justice coordinator. And it’s possible that the school could face a more dire fate: closure. Denver is expecting to lose even more students in the years ahead, and has launched a committee to help determine which schools will be closed and consolidated.

Hallett could be a microcosm of the painful reckoning ahead for small schools in cities across the country. With enrollment down and federal money drying up, more districts could consider school closures to fill budget holes. But going that route won’t be easy or popular.

“School closures are extremely difficult to navigate,” said Francis Pearman, a Stanford education professor who has studied school closures. But, he warned, “Districts are going to have to restructure in some way, shape, or form.”

Over the last couple of decades, declining enrollment — prompted by population shifts and the growth of charter schools — has prompted rounds of unpopular school closures in cities including Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, and Philadelphia.

The pandemic accelerated those declines, and city districts have continued to lose students this year even as suburban and rural districts have started to gain them back, according to a recent analysis by Burbio.

New York City, the country’s largest district, has 938,000 students, down from 1,002,000 before the pandemic. Los Angeles’ enrollment fell to 430,000 students this year, from 474,000 in 2019 and over 700,000 in the early 2000s. Chicago currently has 330,000 students, compared to 355,000 before the pandemic.

Normally, such sharp enrollment declines might prompt immediate discussions of school closures. For now, officials are moving cautiously.

“Before I approach a community about closing schools, I want to look at how we can make these schools more attractive,” Chicago schools CEO Pedro Martinez said in October. “One thing I am not in favor of is disrupting the lives of our children.”

That reflects the deep unpopularity of closures, but also the luxury of resources, since many urban districts received several thousand dollars per student in COVID aid. “We have at least two years of financial stability enabled by federal funding,” Los Angeles superintendent Alberto Carvalho recently told EdSource.

Indeed, many school districts have used federal funds to avoid making budget cuts or to pump money into schools that lost enrollment.

In Chicago, despite the decline in enrollment, nearly all schools saw larger budgets this year. The city has used much of its COVID relief money to pay for existing staff and avoid layoffs.

In New York City, the single biggest use of COVID relief was $823 million to avoid budget cuts.

Minneapolis, which has also faced steep enrollment declines, has budgeted nearly half of its relief funds for “continuity of services,” code for paying existing staff.

In Denver, a third of the district’s schools avoided cuts due to a loss of students with the help of federal dollars.

Protecting these shrinking schools is a reasonable choice, says school funding researcher Paul Bruno at the University of Illinois. After all, closing schools and cutting staff would be disruptive as schools try to help students catch up academically and address social-emotional challenges.

“Some of these emergency funds, maybe, are buying them time,” said Bruno. “Hopefully, they’re thinking about how to use that time for when the funds run out.”

Once federal money dries up — the last of it must be spent by 2024 — urban districts could see budget shortfalls, since state funding is typically tied to enrollment. Even if states boost overall funding, city schools losing students particularly quickly are unlikely to escape cuts.

That, in turn, could quickly lead to talks of closing schools to save money.

In Denver and other places, those discussions have already begun. Indianapolis Public Schools, which serves the urban core of the city, projects a deficit next year that could grow to $25 million by 2027. The district has convened discussions about how to address this in a process optimistically called “rebuilding stronger.”

“People should know that everything is on the table,” Superintendent Aleesia Johnson told WFYI in March. “But that doesn’t mean only closure is on the table. That means we could consider closures.”

New Orleans — an all-charter district — is beginning conversations with charter schools about reorganizing, consolidating, or closing schools to deal with thousands of open seats and declining birth rates.

Closing schools, though, often ignites a firestorm, since it can mean losing a source of community, local pride, and stable jobs.

For instance, Oakland, which has been losing students for many years, recently announced plans to close several schools. Furious protests followed, and parents, students, and teachers packed school board meetings to oppose the plan.

“I love my teachers and I love my friends,” an Oakland kindergartener said during a board meeting, reported The Oaklandside. “Please don’t close my school or I will be very sad.”

In Aurora, Colorado, a city near Denver, school board members recently rejected the superintendent’s recommendation to close two small elementary schools after hearing the pleas from parents.

“The Sable elementary school staff members, teachers, kids in general, that’s like a family,” said one father. “If you close down or shut down a school it’s like you’re forcing my family apart.”

Research on the academic effects of school closures is mixed. If displaced students wind up at a substantially better school, they tend to do better. But students often end up at a similarly performing school, and the closure does academic harm.

Another recent study found that school closures in Black communities can contribute to gentrification, which itself can mean fewer students enrolled in a neighborhood school. That “can lead to further school closures — which can start the cycle back over again,” said Pearman, who coauthored the study with Stanford graduate student Danielle Marie Greene.

In recent years, school closures have also been disproportionately experienced by Black students. In a preliminary study, Pearman and Greene found that schools with mostly Black students were three times more likely than other schools to be closed between 2000 and 2018.

Pearman argues that the key is to create a fair and transparent process for determining which schools will be closed. Still, that often doesn’t assuage skeptics.

Jefferson recently quit Denver’s declining enrollment committee after it became clear that the focus was on closing and consolidating schools. “I inherently do not believe in school closure or consolidation,” she said.

Keeping a lot of small schools open comes with big downsides, though.

Too many schools can mean services are spread thinly across too many campuses. Oakland officials say existing custodial staff struggle to keep up with demands of so many buildings.

Very small schools often don’t offer things like art classes, after-school programs, or a nurse, because there simply aren’t enough students — and the attached funds — to pay for them. In Oakland, officials have said that running schools with fewer than 300 students is unsustainable.

Districts can spend extra money to prop up small schools, and many do. But that leads to ballooning costs.

“Even when you give more money to them, they still aren’t able to cost effectively offer the kinds of experiences we want for students to have,” said Karen Hawley Miles, head of the consulting firm Education Resource Strategies, which works with many urban districts.

Plus, subsidizing small schools means “taking dollars away from other schools in order to do that,” she said.

For her part, Jefferson knows that small schools are expensive to run. But she thinks keeping schools like hers open, with a full slate of student support, is worth it. “We can afford that as a country,” she said.

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