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School & District Management Opinion

The New Problem Facing Urban School Districts

Big city district leaders across the nation may have to learn how to downsize
By Van Schoales & Brian Eschbacher — February 25, 2022 5 min read
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Many of our great urban school districts have been in crisis for decades, struggling to deliver on the promise of a high-quality education for all students. That is especially true for Rust Belt cities that have seen years of declining public school enrollment, eroding the operational foundations of districts and thus making it even more difficult to set a steady course for improvement.

This long-standing problem in cities like Detroit and Memphis, Tenn., that have had overall declining populations is now a problem for school systems in cities like Austin, Texas; Denver; and Nashville, Tenn. These cities are thriving economically yet because of declining birthrates and rising housing costs, now have school districts with decreasing student populations.

And all these changes are happening in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated many preexisting problems, including academic learning that falls significantly short of state standards, especially for students from poor families and those of color. It has also created a mental health crisis for millions of students.

Our big-city school systems are on the front lines of these challenges and have historically had the greatest difficulty adjusting to change because of their politics, size, cultures, and management structures. They were designed a century ago when student populations seemed to be ever-growing and middle-income-generating factory jobs required just a basic education—a far cry from the present.

And now, in most American cities, housing costs are increasing, pricing out younger families who then move elsewhere. At the same time, birthrates are dropping. The two trends together leave many populations with smaller proportions of school-age children. That often impacts urban-district enrollment to a greater extent than the defection of families to other kinds of schooling—private, nondistrict charter, or home schooling, even with pandemic-related increases.

Many demographers have focused on the long-term risk to Social Security or Medicare posed by the lower birthrates, but K-12 education is actually the first institution to be dramatically affected. Shrinking is hard. But it does not have to be catastrophic and if done thoughtfully can even be an opportunity to restart or build higher-quality schools.

Many demographers have focused on the long-term risk to Social Security or Medicare posed by the lower birthrates, but K-12 education is actually the first institution to be dramatically affected.

We know. We’ve both had considerable experience with district downsizing, Brian from the inside as the director of planning for the Denver public schools from 2014 to 2018 and Van from the outside supporting a civic organization interested in the process over the past two decades. We have also observed districts do this work poorly, though some like Denver, nearby Mapleton, and Indianapolis have so far managed these difficult changes with far more wins than losses for students.

In general, school districts are good at adjusting to growth but not its opposite. Ribbon cuttings create far fewer protesters than a school closure. Few district actions are as unpopular as consolidating schools, given how deeply people care about them and how much they view them, rightly, as the center of their communities

Nonetheless, the budget constraints of operating an aging set of underutilized facilities can create political, operational, and educational challenges. Certainly pandemic-related staffing shortages among classroom teachers, nurses, mental health professionals, bus drivers, and more, exacerbated by too many schools for the number of children, deprive students of the education they deserve. Further, given tight budgets, the fewer dollars that are spent on the educational “envelope” (including utilities and maintenance), the more dollars that can flow to the classroom.

School closings and consolidations become inevitable, and the sooner districts start grappling with that reality, the better for students, their families, and their neighborhoods. We’ve found that a steady focus on preparing students for the future by delivering as high-quality education as possible creates the best path forward.

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Here are three actions we would encourage districts and their partner organizations to pursue:

  1. Create a fact base that incorporates demographic trends like birthrates, housing prices, and U.S. Census Bureau data with district, charter, and private school enrollment data to forecast enrollments and build a common understanding among key stakeholders about the underlying dynamics and the magnitude of the challenges.
  2. Design stakeholder engagement plans to capture the voice of city, district, school, and community members in designing solutions that respect these voices while addressing the challenges. Often, processes have greater buy-in from the community when the school district works in collaboration with existing community organizations rather than working alone without trusted community partners.
  3. Ensure impacted students have dramatically stronger educational opportunities as a result of the tough decisions districts will need to make. If school closure must occur, prioritize the entry of the students most affected into higher-performing existing schools, providing transportation for the students and additional resources to the schools so their effectiveness is not compromised. Or instead of using existing schools, especially if that means merging several low-performing ones, consider implementing the practices of high-performing schools and launching new school models that reflect the wants and needs of the impacted community.

The district must also create financial and other incentives so that the most effective teachers and leaders are serving in the schools with the students most affected by downsizing. It is critical that the entire system shift to focusing on these students and their communities. All these efforts, if done with rather than to communities, can lead to wins for those affected.

Declining school district enrollment is inevitable in most cities, and system leaders should be prepared to educate their communities and make short- and long-range plans to meet the challenges. Right-sizing doesn’t have to be a torturous process aimed just at reducing financial strain on a district. If done well, it can be an opportunity to reset district organizational structures and finances to drive student achievement upward.

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as The New Problem Facing Urban School Districts

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