On a recent morning inside the Chalmers School of Excellence on Chicago’s West Side, five kindergarten and kindergarten students finished their drawings. Four staff members, including a teacher and a tutor, 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 Romian Crockett worries that the school is getting precariously small.
Chalmers has lost nearly a third of its enrollment during the pandemic, dropping to 215 students. In Chicago, COVID-19 has compounded declines that preceded the virus: Predominantly black neighborhoods like Chalmers’ North Lawndale, long plagued by divestment, have seen an exodus of families over the past decade.
The number of small schools like Chalmers is also growing in many US cities public school enrollment is declining. More than one in five New York elementary schools had fewer than 300 students last year. In Los Angeles, that figure was more than one in four. In Chicago, it’s risen to almost one in three, and in Boston, it’s approaching one in two, according to a Chalkbeat/Associated Press analysis.
Most of these schools were not originally designed to be small, and educators fear the coming years will bring tighter budgets even as schools recover from pandemic disruptions.
“When you lose children, you lose resources,” said Crockett, the manager of Chalmers. “It impacts your ability to serve children with very high needs.”
A state law prohibits Chicago from closing or consolidating schools until 2025. And across the United States, COVID-19 relief money is helping subsidize schools in decline. But when the money runs out in a few years, officials will face a stark choice: keep schools open despite financial pressure, or close them, upending communities in search of stability for their children.
“I’m afraid we’re closing when we’ve all worked so hard,” said Yvonne Wooden, who sits on the Chalmers School Board. Her children went from kindergarten to eighth grade, and two grandchildren are there now. “It would really hurt our neighborhood.”
The pandemic accelerated decline in enrollment in many districts as families home schooled, charter schools and other options. Students have moved or disappeared from school lists for unknown reasons.
Many districts like Chicago donate money to schools for each student. This means that smaller schools sometimes struggle to pay the fixed costs – the principal, a counselor and building maintenance.
To solve this problem, many allocate additional funds to small schools, diverting funds from larger schools. In Chicago, the district spends an average of $19,000 a year per student in small high schools, while students in large schools receive $10,000, according to Chalkbeat/AP analysis.
“I love small schools, but small schools are very expensive,” Chicago Schools Chief Pedro Martinez told the school board recently. “We can get some really creative and innovative models, but we need funding.”
At the same time, these schools are often stretched. Very small schools offer fewer clubs, sports and arts programs. Some elementary schools are combining students from different grades into the same class, though Martinez has sworn that won’t happen next year.
Manley Career Academy High School on the West Side of Chicago illustrates this 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 extracurricular activities.
“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 spirit of togetherness and support. Some argue that districts should pour more dollars into these schools, many of them in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods hit hard by the pandemic. Schools serve as community centers and points of local pride even when they lose students, as is the case in North Lawndale.
The race also occupies an important place. Nationally, schools with more students of color are more likely to be closed, and those in affected communities often feel unfairly targeted.
The prospect of school closures is particularly dire in Chicago, where 50 schools were closed in 2013, most in predominantly black neighborhoods. The move has shaken trust between residents and the neighborhood and, according to University of Chicago Researchsignificantly disrupted learning for low-income students.
In Boston, where the district was losing students long before the pandemic, families are skeptical of the closures.
Among the schools most at risk is PA Shaw Elementary School in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. Revived from a previous closure in 2014, the school had just over 150 pupils last year, up from 250 in 2018. After planning to eliminate two classrooms earlier this year – seen by some as a sign harbinger of the shutdown – the district faced backlash from parents and teachers.
Among the parents who rallied around the school was Brenda Ramsey, whose 7-year-old daughter, Emersyn Wise, is entering second grade. When Ramsey became homeless and went to live with his family during the pandemic, Shaw’s teachers drove half an hour to do their homework. Later, school staff helped Ramsey find permanent accommodation.
Ramsey, 32, still remembers the joy she felt when she and her two daughters first visited Shaw.
“The headmistress looked like them – she was a young black woman who was thrilled to see them,” she said. “They were really, really into family engagement, family involvement, and that’s just something you don’t see that often.”
Now, with the fate of the school in question, Ramsey ponders whether to keep Emersyn there.
Ramsey’s dilemma exemplifies what the district calls its “decline in enrollment cycle”: School enrollment declines, leading to financial instability — prompting even more families to leave. The problem is often worse in schools with more students of color.
And when schools face closure, it’s “devastating” for families, said Suleika Soto, acting director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, which advocates for underrepresented students.
“That means you have to uproot yourself,” she said. “And then if the parents don’t like it, they’ll pull their kids out of the public school system, which again adds to the toxic cycle.”
Nevertheless, some urban school districts that are losing students, including denver, Indianapolis and Kansas City, Mo. consider school closures. Earlier this year, the Oakland School Board voted to close several small schools despite furious protests.
“School budgets have been cut to keep more schools open,” said former Oakland board member Shanthi Gonzales, who resigned in May shortly after voting to support school closures. schools. “There are some really awful compromises.”
Elsewhere, leaders — supported by federal COVID-19 relief funds — have continued to invest in those schools.
Chicago will use about $140 million of the $2.8 billion in COVID-19 relief it has secured to help support small schools this school year, officials said. Martinez, who took over as chief of schools last fall, avoided talking about closures, saying he wants to study how the district can make its campuses more family-friendly — and ask for more money from the school. ‘State.
In Los Angeles and New York Cityofficials say they are focused on getting students back into the system, not school closures.
But the federal relief money will soon run out: Districts must budget that money by September 2024. When it does, districts may struggle to keep all of their small schools afloat.
“It’s a huge problem,” said UC Berkeley education researcher Bruce Fuller. “It’s going to be harder and harder for superintendents to justify keeping these places open as the number of these schools continues to grow.”