School & District Management

When a Community Loses Its Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — June 06, 2017 13 min read
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Seven-year-old Zion Robinson bounded across the narrow road after the school bus stopped in front of a house with pink petunias hanging from the porch rafters.

She excitedly held up to her mother her reward for doing well in class at Faulk Elementary in West Memphis: a white paper plate she had decorated with red, green, and blue paint.

Like many school-age children in this rural town in the Arkansas Delta, Zion gets on a school bus around 6:30 a.m. for the ride to school in West Memphis, Ark., across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn. Ordinarily, West Memphis is a half-hour drive from Hughes, but with frequent school bus stops, the ride can last nearly 60 minutes. Zion gets off the bus around 3:30 p.m. In the winter, Hughes students can both leave home and return in the dark.

Hughes elementary and secondary schools closed at the end of the 2014-15 school year, when the Arkansas education department mandated that the district consolidate with West Memphis because its average daily attendance had fallen below 350 students—a threshold set by a 2004 law known as Act 60. It requires districts that enroll fewer than 350 students for two consecutive years to consolidate or annex with another school system.

Hughes’ former schools are among the hundreds of schools nationwide that close for a variety of reasons. But research suggests that such closures sometimes have a disparate—and disruptive—effect on communities.

Since the Arkansas law passed in 2004, more than 60 districts have consolidated or merged, according to the state education department. Some had been through consolidation before. While the majority of the districts affected had predominantly white student bodies—reflecting the state’s overall demographics—black and poor students made up a higher percentage of the enrollment in the individual schools that were closed than they did in those that stayed open, according to research by the office for education policy at the University of Arkansas. That 2010 report analyzed the spate of consolidations and closures that occurred shortly after the law passed. Gary Ritter, the faculty director at the university’s education policy office, said he expects that the percentages haven’t changed much since then.

The university’s analysis found that black students made up 33 percent of the enrollment in the schools that closed, compared with 20 percent of the enrollment in schools that had not been closed.

And, while the consolidated districts had smaller minority populations overall, their students were more likely to be poor: 64 percent of students in consolidated districts qualified for free and reduced-price meals, according to the report. In nonconsolidated districts, 49 percent of students qualified for the reduced-price-meal program.

The closed schools were more likely to be Title I schools, and, on average, had lower test scores, Ritter said.

Children lie down during naptime at a preschool program in a building near a now-shuttered elementary school. The parents of these children must decide in a year or two whether to put them on a school bus for the hourlong trip to West Memphis schools or move closer.

Which Voices Get Heard?

“There was a concern—a legitimate concern—that the districts that were subject to consolidation had been unable to provide the educational support and the high-quality teaching that kids deserved,” Ritter said of the legislation that prompted the consolidations and closures. The law was among a broader set of measures enacted to address funding and education inequities after the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the state’s school funding system was unconstitutional. “It certainly wasn’t a blind imposition of a draconian measure on poor kids because [legislators] didn’t care about poor kids.”

Districts, he said, may argue that the closed schools had lower academic achievement. But it was also possible that poor parents and communities did not have as much influence or visibility as more-resourced neighborhoods to push back against the closures, he said.

School closures in big cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Newark, N.J., sparked pitched protests and lawsuits, but a national analysis of a decade of school-level data published earlier this year by the Urban Institute found that more schools actually closed in suburban areas. And when schools close in rural areas like Hughes, they are unlikely to be replaced, according to the Urban Institute’s analysis.

Closing entire districts can push communities already facing economic decline nearer the edge. Hughes has been losing population for years. It fell from nearly 1,800 in the 2000 Census to 1,400 a decade later. A 2016 estimate put the population at 1,300.

Long dependent on agriculture—Delta farms grow cotton and rice—residents have been forced to seek employment elsewhere as agriculture became more mechanized and farming jobs more scarce.

Now, some residents worry that with schools closed and children being shuttled to at least three different districts— West Memphis, Lee County, and Earle—parents will follow. Many parents already work outside of Hughes, and it would be easier to move closer to their jobs and their children’s schools than to stay in town, some parents say.

The district was also the town’s largest employer, leading some local businesses to take a hit after it closed, said Lincoln Barnett, a former member of the now-defunct Hughes school board. The bank, where the district kept its deposits, was slated to close last month, he said. Downtown is littered with empty storefronts and fading awnings and signs.

“It’s just awful,” says Shirley Hale, the program director at the Arkansas State University pre-K program, at the campus of the former Mildred Jackson Elementary School, where black students attended school before district schools were integrated.

After a lengthy ride from her school in West Memphis, Ark., Zion Robinson, 7, heads to her home in Hughes, Ark. The schools in Hughes were closed at the end of the 2014-15 school year after state officials ordered the two school systems to consolidate.

On a recent afternoon, Hale was looking after a dozen or so napping children. Next year, some of their parents will have to decide whether to put them on a bus or move away. At least one parent of a former student left Hughes to be closer to her child’s new school, Hale said.

“This town is really poverty-stricken, but at least we had our schools,” she said. “And they ended up taking that away from us. Instead of trying to support the smaller schools, they are trying to consolidate them. I don’t think it’s good for our children. I think it’s politics.”

“I don’t have anything against West Memphis public schools,” she said. “I just hate that our kids have to ride that bus over there.”

Solutions for Rural Schools

Candace Williams, the executive director of the Rural Community Alliance, said that unless the state invests in rural communities—including providing reliable internet access and job opportunities—rural areas will continue to lose people, and more districts will be forced to consolidate.

Williams believes that annexation, where the local schools remain open even though another district takes over, may be a better alternative to consolidation. And Ritter from the University of Arkansas suggests that cooperatives where districts share resources could help with the goals of providing rigorous course options, access to well-qualified teachers, and reduced costs.

A sign welcomes visitors to Hughes, Ark., which is 37 miles from Memphis, Tenn. When schools are closed in rural areas like Hughes, they are less likely to be replaced, according to research.

By its last full school year, the Hughes district had shrunk to 318 students, 94 percent of whom qualified for free and reduced-price meals. The district was in fiscal distress and was designated as “needs improvement,” which is not as severe as being in “academic distress.” But the label meant that the district had work to do: In 2014, just 45.8 percent of Hughes students were proficient in math and literacy, according to the state.

Enrollment declined gradually for more than a decade, but accelerated in 2006, said Sheryl Owens, the last superintendent. Many white parents in Hughes and surrounding communities zoned for the district were already sending their children to private schools; others were using the state school choice law to attend neighboring districts, she said.

Owens, who became the district’s first black female superintendent in 2013, said she tried to boost enrollment and ward off consolidation. She said she thinks race played a role in the decision to close the district. She tried to appeal to foreign-exchange students, but no one bit, she said. She also tried, to no avail, to get neighboring district officials to send back students who should not have enrolled in their districts because of a state cap on the percentage of students who can use the choice option. And the state education department did not help, she said.

The threat of consolidation also had other consequences: It made it harder to attract high-quality teachers, she said.

“No one was getting on a sinking ship unless you had no other choice,” she said.

The district had a working deal with Forrest City, which would have kept the elementary school open. But it fell through over concerns about lingering lawsuits against the Hughes district.

Not everyone was against the consolidation. Some residents were unhappy with the district and felt that students would get a better education in West Memphis; others hoped the move would lead to lower taxes.

Whether Hughes students ended up in schools that were superior to their old ones is up for debate. In the last year that Hughes operated, the state had also designated West Memphis as a district that “needs improvement.” In both districts, significant numbers of students were failing to meet state standards in literacy, math, and other tested subjects, according to state report cards for the 2014-15 school year.

The majority of the younger students from Hughes went to Faulk Elementary School and the older ones to West Junior High School and West Memphis High School, which has since been renamed the Academies of West Memphis. Hughes’ elementary school, Mildred Jackson, had a D rating on its 2015 state report card, while its high school had a C. Faulk, in West Memphis, also got a D rating, while the junior high and high schools were C-rated.

Unproven Benefits

On average, students across the state who were displaced by consolidation went to schools that performed better on state tests, Ritter said. The Rural School and Community Trust in 2015 also found that the percentage of black school administrators and school board members declined after the consolidations and closures.

Elsewhere, research on the academic effects of closing schools also has not settled the debate on its benefits. In a 2015 report on high school closures in New York City, New York University researchers found that middle schoolers who would have attended low-performing high schools that had closed had a graduation rate that was 15 percentage points higher than students who went to similarly low-performing high schools that stayed open. A 2013 study on school closures in Michigan also showed that while the influx of students can be disruptive to receiving schools, the students placed in higher-performing schools significantly improved in math three years later.

Gary Masner, the school board president in West Memphis, said the district went above and beyond to try to accommodate Hughes students. He said students have access to more Advanced Placement courses than they did at Hughes, dual-enrollment courses, and a world-class choir program with Opera Memphis.

About this series

Hidden Inequities: An Education Week Analysis

Educators and the public are aware that achievement gaps often separate students of color from their higher-achieving white peers, leave low-income students lagging behind their better-off peers, and restrict opportunities for students with disabilities. Less obvious are the mechanisms and circumstances that contribute to those academic differences.

This installment is the fourth in a series intended to shed light on the “hidden inequities” that keep education from reaching the goal of leveling the playing field for all students. Most of these reports were produced by Education Week staff writers working in collaboration with the Education Week Research Center.

Click here to read the full series.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to those kids,” Masner said. “Maybe the parents didn’t particularly like it. Now they are here, and they are seeing the increased exposure they have to better facilities and better selection of courses and more extracurricular activities. The kids have thrived. ... I haven’t heard anybody unhappy, except for a few administrators who lost their jobs.”

West Junior High has about 75 students from Hughes, and the school tried to ease their transition by hosting a community meeting in Hughes and inviting parents to tour the school, said Charles Tyler, the principal. The district added extra buses, one at 5 p.m. and another at 6:30 p.m., for students who wanted to participate in extracurricular activities, Tyler said.

He said that he understood parents’ concerns about the distance their children travel daily and said transportation has been the biggest hurdle to overcome.

“I would not want to put my kindergartner on a bus and send them that far,” said Tyler.

Some Hughes students needed tutoring to catch up, he said. Others made the honor roll.

“We’ve got some really good students, they are really well-behaved for the most part,” he said. “Their grades have been fine.”

Buildings in Disrepair

The squat, brick buildings that were part of the Hughes district are in various stages of disrepair. The doors are unlocked on some buildings, and the empty rooms and hallways are strewn with building insulation, spattered paint, and broken pieces of wood.

Zion Robinson, 7, is one of many students who ride a bus from Hughes to schools in West Memphis, Ark. every weekday. She boards the bus around 6:30 a.m. and returns at 3:30 p.m.

Some walls are covered in graffiti. Other classrooms still have lessons on the whiteboard, giving the appearance that students and teachers had only temporarily stepped out.

A year after the consolidation, West Memphis gave the buildings to the city, which then leased the high school gymnasium for free to Deon Lee, the police chief in Forrest City.

Lee, who graduated from Hughes and whose son was part of the last graduating high school class, spent about $3,000 to clean up the gym. In the afternoons, students can shoot hoops, do homework, or play games on their digital devices. He also rents out the space to community groups.

Lee and Barnett, the former Hughes school board member, hope the other buildings will be repurposed, possibly as after-school space for students or places for adult learning.

Views From Parents

Some parents worry about the difficulty— and the expense—of getting to school during the day if a child gets sick or misses the bus home. And although the West Memphis district said that it has added extra buses for students who want to stay later, some parents said they were hesitant to sign up for after-school activities in case children miss the bus or have practice on a Saturday morning.

Belinda Joshaway, a parent who opposed the consolidation, has been critical of the West Memphis district. Joshaway, her husband, and her three older children all graduated from Hughes High School. Her younger son, Malik, is a high school junior in West Memphis.

Mildred Jackson Elementary School was among those closed in Hughes, Ark., a few years ago. Today, the school is covered with vines and its classrooms are littered with books and trash.

“It was hurting my heart,” said Joshaway, a teacher in Memphis, Tenn., about 37 miles away. “All of us came through that system. We had excellent teachers, to my thinking, and I thought we got a good foundation there.”

Malik had a hard time adjusting to his new school and has been suspended several times, including after he hit a student who directed a racial slur at him, his mother said. He finished the year at an alternative school.

“Every little thing our children were doing, they were being suspended for it,” she said. “I know they have to follow the rules, but sometimes you can use other things besides suspensions.”

While she has criticisms for the Hughes district, Joshaway said that educators there were more connected to students. “I am used to having mentors in Hughes, where they brought in men to talk to our children,” she said. “There is none of that in West Memphis.”

On the upside, her son made the basketball team at West Junior High School. (He hadn’t at Hughes.) But a younger niece has struggled in math and has not been able to get needed help, she said.

Joshaway stressed that she was only relaying her experience, and that she knew parents who thought the consolidation was the best thing to happen for Hughes children.

Her older niece, Raquella Morris, 19, graduated from West Memphis High School in 2016. Morris said she had a good experience there. She met new people and had helpful teachers, including a journalism teacher who allowed students to finish school work in her classroom.

“She pushed us to work hard and she always said that if we needed to talk about anything, she was there,” Morris said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2017 edition of Education Week as Some Districts Hit Hard When Schools Close


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