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City Districts Tackle Round of School Closings

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 14, 2006 4 min read
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Shrinking enrollments and tight budgets are forcing urban education leaders around the country to close schools and shift thousands of students to different campuses next school year.

Colby McLean, left, and Keyona Turner hold signs in favor of Harbor city West High, which is slated to be closed.

From Seattle to Baltimore, officials in big-city districts this spring are wrestling with balancing their budgets by shuttering neighborhood schools, a delicate, often controversial, task. Several large districts, including Buffalo, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco, have already acted, or will act, to close schools before the fall.

Diminishing state and federal funding, dramatic demographic changes, and competition from charter schools are driving most districts’ plans to close schools, despite the unpopularity of such decisions, said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington advocacy group that represents large urban districts.

“It’s a nightmare to do this,” Mr. Casserly said. “It’s every bit as hard to close a school as it is to close a military base, … and it’s on a much more personal, intense level when you talk about schools.”

‘Right-Sizing’

In Baltimore, a proposal to shutter six schools, including a high school campus, sparked vehement objections among several hundred students, who staged three days of lively protests around the city.

Defenders of neighborhood elementary schools in Sacramento, Calif., turned out in large numbers at a recent school board meeting there, prompting district officials to reconsider plans to close small elementary schools to free resources for creating more small high schools.

But the most drastic changes next fall will be in Pittsburgh, where the school board recently approved Superintendent Mark Roosevelt’s plans to shutter 22 elementary and middle schools, shifting roughly 6,000 students to other campuses.

Mr. Roosevelt’s “right-sizing plan” also converts eight failing elementary and middle schools into “accelerated-learning academies” that will focus more intently on core subjects and lengthen the school day by 45 minutes. District officials, who have closed a handful of schools in recent years, have been under pressure from state lawmakers and education officials to trim or eliminate the nearly 14,000 empty seats in the 32,000-student system.

The superintendent relied heavily on data, such as test scores and socioeconomic factors, analyzed by the RAND Corp. to help district leaders decide which schools should close or be consolidated.

“To close buildings in the name of saving money wasn’t going to cut it,” said Mr. Roosevelt, who became superintendent in August. “What could we say to parents to help with the pain of their local school closing? We wanted to tell them that their child will have better educational opportunities next year.”

Racial Tensions

Still, the overhaul has caused some outrage in Pittsburgh that has broken down largely along racial lines. Most of the students whose schools are closing are African-American, and some prominent black civic leaders opposed the plan. Two of the school board’s three black members voted against the plan, chiefly because more than 60 percent of the students who must move to new schools are black.

“It disproportionately affected African-American students in the system, and I question the legality of that,” said Randall Taylor, who is the vice president of the school board.

Mr. Taylor cited predominantly black schools in his neighborhood that will be closed or consolidated despite their high marks in the RAND report.

Mr. Roosevelt acknowledged that the concerns about African-American students are valid, but he said that shifting black children to higher-achieving schools makes up for the loss of a neighborhood school.

“It is true that a higher percentage of black students must move, but the vast majority of the children who’ve been shortchanged over the years have been black,” he said.

The Pittsburgh district, with an annual budget of $525 million, faces a budget shortfall next year of $45 million if spending is not reined in, Mr. Roosevelt said. The school closures and realignments will save the district roughly $10 million, he said.

Mr. Casserly said he knew of no other large district that has used as complex a closure strategy as Pittsburgh’s.

School leaders in Baltimore are also struggling to trim operating costs that state lawmakers have said are too high. The city system has 85,000 students, but space for 125,000, prompting district officials to reduce 15 percent of the system’s square footage over the next three years.

The district’s closure plans for six schools next fall would transfer 5,300 students to 22 other schools in the district, said Eric Letsinger, the chief operating officer for the district.

In Seattle, where enrollment has been shrinking by about 300 students a year, school district leaders are proceeding more slowly and consulting more closely with community members after a closure plan sparked stiff public resistance last year.

District officials are waiting for a recommendation from a community task force on which schools, and how many, should be closed.

Dwindling enrollment because of low birthrates and high housing prices, along with competition from numerous private schools, has pushed Seattle from a 100,000-student district 30 years ago to a 48,000-student district today, said Peter Daniels, a spokesman for the Seattle public schools.

The San Francisco board of education in January voted to close or merge a dozen schools that have steadily lost students. Enrollment drain in the 56,000-student district has been even more rapid than Seattle’s, at roughly 1,000 students a year.

Whether the current trend of shrinking urban districts will continue is hard to predict, Mr. Casserly said.

“Some of the factors driving this can’t be controlled by schools,” he said. “But when it’s related to concerns over achievement, we can do a lot about that.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as City Districts Tackle Round of School Closings

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