Education Opinion

Learning Deserts

By Monica Martinez & Phi Delta Kappan — March 07, 2011 7 min read

If you’ve always lived near a grocery store, you may not know that many communities across the United States have limited or no access to foods needed to maintain a healthy diet. Known as “food deserts,” these communities are typically urban areas with a high level of racial segregation and large numbers of low income households, or in rural areas. Residents are more likely to find fast-food restaurants or convenience stores than a grocery store (Imhoff and Pollan 2007).

In a similar way, many of these same areas could be considered “learning deserts” — communities devoid of learning resources. These are communities that have many low-performing schools and a record number of school closures. In other words, they have limited or no access to the education needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

According to the American Association of School Administrators, about 6% of schools were closed or consolidated in 2009-10, compared to 3% in 2008-09. AASA even predicts that 11% or more of the districts will close additional schools (Ellerson and McCord 2009). Dramatic school closures across urban districts this year have made major headlines. In Detroit, emergency financial manager Robert Bobb, who was sent in by the state to address declining enrollment and a budget deficit of more than $219 million, developed a plan to close a quarter of the city’s 172 public schools over time. Detroit had previously closed 29 schools before classes started last fall. In that same month, Cleveland, Chicago, and Kansas City, Mo., also announced future school closings. In a 5-to-4 vote, the Kansas City school board decided to close nearly half of the district’s 61 schools as a way to avoid bankruptcy. This doesn’t include the unprecedented number of school closings in New York City since 2002 and continued downsizing in Denver, St. Louis, and Milwaukee.

All of these closures stem from two problems: significant budget shortfalls as a result of declining enrollment and perpetual underperformance of multiple schools. For instance, Milwaukee Public Schools has closed about six schools each year since 2005 because of decreasing enrollment. Detroit’s population has declined with each passing decade. The 2010 U.S. Census is expected to show that Detroit now has far fewer than 900,000 residents. Enrollment in the Detroit Public Schools has dropped from 164,500 in 2002-03 to 87,700 for the current school year — and is expected to decline further to 56,500 in 2014-15. Kansas City had only 18,000 students, projecting that 40% of its available seats are vacant at elementary schools, 60% are vacant in middle schools, and more than 60% are vacant in the high schools.

Transforming Districts

Cleveland has about 50,000 students, down from 78,000 over a decade ago, but most important, most of the city schools have been in academic emergency for multiple years. So, while Cleveland is planning to close one-third of its schools, district CEO Gene Sanders has made the school closings part of a larger “transformation plan” designed to “make sure students are ready to graduate and compete for jobs, to have high-quality school choices in every neighborhood, to create measures of accountability for administrators, to attract as well as retain families and right-size the district’s capacity” (Crowder 2010). The plan went beyond declining enrollment and budget cuts but signaled hope and vision for teaching. Cleveland created the Office of New and Innovative Schools, supported in concept and cost by the Cleveland and George Gund foundations. The plan was comprehensive and schools are categorized for different actions — Growth, Refocus, Repurpose, Close, Open, or Relocate. Schools will be managed differently depending on their action category.

The Cleveland Plan seeks to spread innovation, opening new proven school models and partnering with proven providers. The high school strategy, for example, will focus on breaking down struggling comprehensive high schools into academies that will serve 400 to 600 students and offer a portfolio of choices in all three regions of the city.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said, “Cleveland would be on the leading edge of many of these reforms across the nation if it stays true to this initiative” (Crowder 2010).

Abandoning Communities

Not everyone is a believer in using this opportunity to close schools, shore up resources, and bank on improvement and innovation. There are still some who believe that closing schools only contributes to the abandonment of urban communities and supports suburban sprawl. Kansas City Councilwoman Sharon Sanders Brooks, for example, said,

This intentional continuation of the blighting of the urban core is scandalous and shameful. The urban core has suffered white flight post the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, blockbusting by the real estate industry, redlining by banks and other financial institutions, retail and grocery store abandonment. And, now, the public education system is aiding and abetting in the economic demise of our school district. It is shameful and sinful.

Others fight to keep schools open because they believe having a neighborhood school supports a community’s vitality. Where neighbors fear that abandoned schools will attract drug dealers and vandals and lead to decline in property value, students feel only loss. When I was in Cleveland visiting schools that are part of the New and Innovative Schools, students lamented losing their school even though the school managed to graduate only about 54% of its students. Regardless of the reasons for closing a school, students, parents, and community members believe closing a school means taking an institution away from them.

Corporate Solutions

Community leaders and politicians have tried to redress food deserts by convincing grocery store chains to move into the cities. In a similar vein, nontraditional educators have moved into urban centers to redress the learning deserts issue. Chicago, New York, and New Orleans, for example, have embraced charter schools as a way to take over failing public schools. Charter organizations have used funds from private foundations, business leaders, and state or district funds to build portfolios of schools that encompass a variety of educational approaches offered by different vendors in an attempt to address intractable problems in public schools. While multiple districts are using this approach, and many policy leaders, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, are championing it, there’s no evidence yet on its effectiveness (Saltman 2010). After years of using charter schools, some are failing, and organizations such as the Renaissance Fund in Chicago are trying to learn how to develop new charter schools as well as how to close failing charter schools.

The portfolio approach can do one of two things, and it’s up to a district’s leadership team to determine what effect such an approach will have. The portfolio approach can work as a “shadow system” providing temporary learning communities, networks, and structures that meet some local education needs. Or the portfolio approach can be part of a nimble system that supports flexibility, distributed collaboration, and transparency in order to address innovation, adaptation, and openness.

After a recent visit to Cleveland Metropolitan School District and meeting with the chief executive officer, Gene Sanders, and his staff from the Office of New and Innovative Schools, as well as leaders at the Cleveland Foundation, the Gund Foundation, and principals and leaders from redesigned and charter schools, I believe Cleveland’s transformation plan — which uses charter management organizations, school development organizations, and the business community as engaged partners and uses higher education institutions to develop diverse schools — has the potential to create a system that effectively serves all K-12 students.

According to Paul Hill, standards-based reform introduced a new role for the district: Do whatever it takes to prepare every child for successful entry into higher education and gainful employment (Lake and Hill 2009). School districts can no longer be satisfied with their roles as facilities and staffing managers but, instead, must become responsible for providing effective instruction and ensuring that schools and concomitant programs work. If performance- based management is a new force pushing on districts, then how will they address concentrated poverty within this paradigm without creating learning deserts?


  • Crowder, Rhonda. “Cleveland Schools Are in a State of Transformation.” Cleveland Call & Post, Aug. 27, 2010. www.cleveland.com/call-andpost/index.ssf/2010/08/cleveland_schools_are_in_a_sta.html.
  • Ellerson, Noelle, and Robert S. McCord. One Year Later: How the Economic Downturn Continues to Impact School Districts. Arlington, Va.: Association of American School Administrators, October 2009.
  • Imhoff, Daniel, and Michael Pollan. Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill. Healdsburg/, Calif.: Watershed Media, 2007.
  • Lake, Robin, and Paul Hill. Portfolio Management in Portfolio School Districts. Seattle, Wash.: Center on Reinventing Public Education, 2009.
  • Saltman, Kenneth J. Urban School Decentralization and the Growth of Portfolio Districts. Lansing, Mich.: Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice, 2010. www.greatlakescenter.org.

All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.

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