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School districts get creative when enrollment drops

Administrators send students to stronger schools, start new programs, and engage parents
Some schools districts are using enrollment losses and building closures as an opportunity to improve student achievement by shifting kids to better schools.

Record lows in student enrollment and staggering budget cuts have forced some of the nation’s largest districts to close schools, a disruption that has often interfered with classroom instruction.

“Many big urban districts have declining enrollment, as there is exodus to the suburbs and charter schools,” says Ron Zimmer, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, an expert on these trends.

Some districts are using enrollment losses and building closures as an opportunity to improve student achievement by shifting kids to better schools. Others have even opened new magnet schools, hoping to attract back those students lost to private or charter schools. Many face budget deficits and need to take action—such as shutting down schools—to save the district from financial ruin.

How can administrators successfully navigate the process?

Closures as reform

The largest single wave of school closures in history is planned to take place this fall in Chicago Public Schools, when 54 buildings will permanently shut their doors despite protests from parents and the Chicago Teachers Union. “Chicago Public Schools faces a $1 billion deficit that threatens the quality of education that children receive,” says district spokesperson Molly Poppe. “At the same time, financing underutilized schools comes at a significant cost to the district.”

The enrollment decline has left nearly 50 percent of schools with empty seats, and 140 buildings half-empty. While the schools are equipped to serve 511,000 children, only 403,000 students are enrolled, Poppe says. Chicago Public Schools will save $800,000 in operating and capital costs over 10 years by closing these schools.

The district plans to upgrade its remaining facilities with air conditioning in every building, iPads for students in grades 3 through 8, and new ceilings and floors. It will also spend $7 million to staff safe passage routes from the closed schools to those receiving the new students, as it is dangerous for children to walk in some neighborhoods. Students whose buildings are closing will be transferred to higher-performing schools, as determined by scores on the Performance Policy for the 2011-2012 school year, which tracks student performance, says Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Research has generally found that student performance stays the same for students who transfer from a closed school to another school. A 2009 study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that the success of school closing policy depends on the quality of the schools that accept the displaced students.

After examining 18 Chicago Public Schools elementary schools that closed due to poor academic performance and low enrollment, researchers found that most displaced students were moved from one low-performing school to another, and the move did not, on average, affect student achievement. However, one year after the school closings, students enrolled in the weakest receiving schools fell behind in math and reading, while those enrolled at the strongest schools showed progress.

In the 2012 study, “Closing Schools in a Shrinking District: Do Student Outcomes Depend on Which Schools Are Closed?” published in the Journal of Urban Economics, Vanderbilt’s Zimmer and his colleagues examined a mid-sized urban district that closed low-performing schools and moved students to higher-performing schools in the same district.

Schools were assigned a score based on student performance, attendance, and other measures. The study found that displaced students’ test scores and attendance suffered their first year in a new school. However, there was less of a decline when students were moved to a school that scored significantly higher than their previous school.

The stress of moving, a new curriculum and a different social dynamic can all set students back, Zimmer says.

“If you’re solely thinking about this as a reform strategy—closing bad schools and shifting students to higher-performing schools—you would have to shift them to much higher-performing schools to get a positive impact,” Zimmer says. “But if you come from the perspective of having to close schools because of budget shortfalls and being unable to go forward with the current number of students, it may be an acceptable way to deal with the problem” without negatively impacting student achievement, he adds.

Charter impact

The rise of charter schools is an “urban phenomenon” that strains traditional public school enrollment, and challenges districts to compete in the education market, Zimmer says. Like district schools, charters are funded based on enrollment. If a child leaves a traditional district school for a charter school, the state funding will go with them.

Unlike traditional schools, most charters do not receive funding for facilities. In Pennsylvania, many charters operate in non-district buildings. Students moving out of traditional public schools to charters have left the School District of Philadelphia with large facilities that are increasingly empty, says Superintendent William Hite.

Last year, the Philadelphia district had nearly 70,000 empty classroom seats, mostly due to students moving to charters and families leaving the city. In 2003, the district had 210,000 students, about 19,000 of which were in charter schools. This school year, there are 205,000 students, 52,000 of which are in charter schools.

And the number of students in charters is expected to grow to 60,000 next year. Add that to a budget deficit of $304 million for the next school year, and Hite says he’s forced to close 24 schools. Charters tend to aggressively promote their safe environments and rigorous classes while many traditional schools “just continue to operate in the status quo without really addressing these issues that parents say are important,” Hite says.

And cyber-charter schools are also threatening traditional brick and mortar classrooms: today, 6,000 students from the School District of Philadelphia are now entirely online.

To bring students back, the district is launching the Philadelphia Virtual School this fall, expanding a high-performing middle school and building a second campus for a popular science magnet program. It also is turning a project-based alternative high school program that currently serves 30 students into a separate school of 500 students.

Community involvement

Though the School District of Philadelphia’s enrollment began falling a decade ago, the district did not involve the community and review facilities until 2010. Hite became superintendent in June 2012, after the district decided to start closing schools.

“If we saw this 10 years ago, but did not announce until two years ago that we were going to close schools, the public question becomes ‘How did this happen?’” Hite says. “You have to publicize the fact that students are moving out of our schools, and districts have to begin to address these issues as they are occurring, and not allow them to build up to a place where there are 70,000 empty seats.”

Planning for enrollment declines over time also gives district administrators more flexibility to redirect financial resources into the classroom. When shuttering schools becomes necessary, administrators must have a vision of how the district can maintain a high-quality curriculum to prevent parents from moving their kids, Hite says.

“Bringing this on individuals at one time is a recipe for a lot of emotions, anger, and politics—things that then distract the conversation about improving schools and make it a conversation about saving schools or closing them,” Hite says. “The conversation has to be much broader, around how to repurpose resources to provide quality education options for students no matter where they are.”

Finding solutions in Missouri

In fall 2010, Kansas City (Mo.) Public Schools closed 26 schools—nearly half of those in the district—and four other buildings, and about 1,000 employees lost their jobs. In a district with room for 80,000, the student population had steadily dropped to 16,800 since the mid-1960s.

The district, also facing a $50 million deficit, went through a “right-sizing” process, says Superintendent R. Stephen Green. It analyzed the number of students at each school as well as the cost to maintain and upgrade buildings. The findings were shared at community meetings. “When you close a number of facilities, it creates a bit of disruption, but it was a much needed process to go through, given the financial stability that was needed for the district,” Green says.

The decision to close was effective: the district is now financially stable, and data suggests that enrollment is beginning to climb back up—it grew by 350 students last year. The district has also improved academically, and is close to receiving accreditation from the Missouri State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“People began to recognize that the beginning to stability was emerging, and we were not going to continue our decline in both performance and in our engagement with the community,” Green says.

In Missouri, charter schools are only allowed in Kansas City and St. Louis. Kansas City Public Schools has lost about 10,000 students to the area’s 22 charters.

The district’s public relations and marketing department is now asking principals to create a task force of staff, parents and community members that will work on winning students back. For example, a school might include preK children in a play to get parents involved with the district early on.

“Charter schools are good at recruiting, while public schools have always waited for students to come to them,” says district spokesperson Eileen Houston-Stewart. “There are a limited number of kids, and people are fighting for these kids. We have to become competitive with those who are out there.”

Starting this fall, Green also plans for neighborhood schools to adopt a theme or focus, such as STEM or the arts. These schools will still provide a comprehensive education, but specialize in a certain academic curriculum or career path. “School leaders need to use the opportunity to rethink and reexamine the market and where your district fits in,” Green says, “and strategically map out an action plan that will reposition you to be competitive and viable.”