As fewer children enroll, big cities face a crisis in small schools

CHICAGO (AP) — On a recent morning inside the Chalmers School of Excellence on Chicago’s West Side, five preschool and kindergarten students completed drawings. Four staff members, including a teacher and a teacher, discussed colors and shapes with them.

The summer program offers the kind of one-on-one support that parents love. But behind the scenes, Principal Roman Crockett worries that the school is becoming dangerously small.

Chalmers lost nearly a third of its enrollment during the pandemic, down 215 students. In Chicago, COVID-19 has exacerbated declines that preceded the virus: Predominantly black neighborhoods like Chalmers’ North Lawndale, long plagued by disinvestment, have seen an exodus of families over the past decade.

The number of small schools like Chalmers is growing in many American cities as public school enrollment declines. More than one in five New York City elementary schools had fewer than 300 students last school year. In Los Angeles, that number was more than one in four. In Chicago it has risen to nearly one in three and in Boston it’s closer to one in two, according to a Chalkbeat/AP analysis.

Most of these schools weren’t originally designed to be small, and educators worry that coming years will bring tighter budgets, even as schools are still recovering from the disruption of the pandemic.

“When you lose kids, you lose resources,” said Crockett, the Chalmers principal. “This affects your ability to serve children with very high needs.”

A state law prohibits Chicago from closing or consolidating schools until 2025. And across the U.S., COVID-19 relief money is helping to subsidize those shrinking schools. But when the money runs out in a few years, officials will face a tough choice: keep schools open despite financial pressure or close them, upsetting communities seeking stability for their children.

“My concern is that we’re going to close when we’ve all worked so hard,” said Yvonne Wooden, who serves on the Chalmers school board. Her children attended kindergarten through eighth grade, and two grandchildren now attend. “That would really hurt our neighborhood.”

The pandemic accelerated enrollment in many districts as families turned to homeschooling, charter schools and other options. Other students were removed or disappeared from the textbooks for unknown reasons.

Many districts like Chicago give schools money for each student. This means that small schools sometimes struggle to pay for fixed costs – the principal, a counselor and building maintenance.

To combat this, many allocate extra money to small schools, diverting dollars from larger schools. In Chicago, the district spends an average of $19,000 a year per student at small high schools, while students at larger ones get $10,000, according to the Chalkbeat/AP analysis.

“I love small schools, but small schools are very expensive,” Chicago Schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez told the school board recently. “We can get some really creative, innovative models, but we need the funding.”

At the same time, these schools are often stretched. Very small schools offer fewer clubs, sports and arts programs. Some elementary schools are forced to group students from different grades into the same classroom, though Martinez has vowed that won’t happen next year.

Manley Career Academy High School on Chicago’s West Side illustrates the paradox. It now serves 65 students and the cost per student has soared to $40,000, even though schools like Manley offer few electives, sports and extracurriculars.

“We’re spending $40,000 per student just to provide the bare minimum,” said Hal Woods of the advocacy group Kids First Chicago, which has studied declining enrollment in the district. “It’s not really a $40,000 per student student experience.”

Small schools are popular with families, teachers and community members because of their tight-knit, supportive feel. Some argue that districts should pour more dollars into these schools, many of them in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods that have been hit hard by the pandemic. Schools can serve as community hubs and points of local pride even when they’re losing students — as is the case in North Lawndale.

The race also looks great. Nationally, schools with more students of color are more likely to be closed, and schools in affected communities often feel unfairly targeted.

The prospect of school closings is particularly ominous in Chicago, where 50 schools closed in 2013, most in predominantly black neighborhoods. The move eroded trust between residents and the district and, according to University of Chicago research, significantly disrupted learning for low-income students.

In Boston, where the district was losing students long before the pandemic, families are skeptical of the closure.

Among the schools most at risk is PA Shaw Elementary School in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. After a previous closing in 2014, the school had just over 150 students last year, down from 250 in 2018. After making plans to eliminate two classrooms earlier this year — seen by some as a harbinger of closure — the district faced blowback from parents and teachers.

Parents gathered behind the school included Brenda Ramsey, whose 7-year-old daughter, Emersyn Wise, is entering second grade. When Ramsey became homeless and went to stay with his family during the pandemic, teachers from Shaw drove half an hour to deliver homework. Later, school staff helped Ramsey find permanent housing.

Ramsey, 32, still remembers the joy she felt when she and her two daughters first visited So.

“The principal looked like — she was a young black woman who was excited to see them,” he said.

Now, with the school’s fate in doubt, Ramsay debates whether to keep Emersyn there.

Ramsey’s dilemma illustrates what the district calls a “declining enrollment cycle”: School enrollments are falling, leading to financial instability — which is pushing even more families to leave. The problem is often worse in schools with more students of color.

And when schools face closings, it’s “devastating” for families, said Suleika Soto, acting director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, which advocates for underrepresented students.

“It means you have to uproot,” he said. “And then if the parents don’t like it, then they’ll take their kids out of the public school system, which again adds to the toxic cycle.”

But some urban school districts that are losing students, including Denver, Indianapolis and Kansas City, Missouri, are considering closing schools. Earlier this year, the Oakland, California school board voted to close several small schools despite strong protests.

“School budgets have been cut as a way to keep more schools open,” said former Oakland board member Sandy Gonzalez, who resigned in May shortly after the vote to close the schools. “There are really awful exchanges.”

Elsewhere, leaders — bolstered by federal COVID-19 relief funds — have continued to invest in these schools.

Chicago will use about $140 million of the $2.8 billion in COVID-19 relief it got to help support small schools this school year, officials said. Martinez, who took over as superintendent of schools last fall, sidestepped talk of the closings, saying he wants to study how the district can make its campuses more attractive to families — and push for more money from the state.

In Los Angeles and New York, officials say they are focused on drawing students back into the system, not closing schools.

But the federal aid money will run out soon: districts must budget for that money until September 2024. When that happens, districts may struggle to keep all their small schools afloat.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Bruce Fuller, an education researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “It will be increasingly difficult for inspectors to justify keeping these places open as the number of these schools continues to grow.”

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Barnum reported from New York and Binkley from Boston. Chalkbeat reporters Kaitlyn Radde in Washington and Thomas Wilburn in Chicago, along with Associated Press reporter Sharon Lurye in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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