Low Funding, Enrollment Lead To School Closures

PHOTO: Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington, D.C., will close at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.Emily DeRuy/ABC-Univision
Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington, D.C., will close at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

Most students will depart for summer vacation in a few months without so much as a backward glance at their schools. After all, they'll be back shortly and there are other things--summer jobs, summer love--to worry about.

But for a growing number of students, the last buzzer will signal more than just freedom. It will mean closure in a very tangible form.

Dozens of schools in major cities across the country will shutter their doors for good at the end of the academic year. As cities try to scrape together enough funding to support their students, officials are looking for ways to trim fat, and in many cases schools with low enrollment are on the chopping block. Many of the schools up for closure are underperforming, and officials argue that distributing the students among other, higher performing schools gives them a better chance at success.

Washington, D.C., is set to close more than a dozen schools in the next couple of years, mostly in poor, minority neighborhoods. Philadelphia decided last week to close more than 20 schools. Other major cities, including Chicago, are also debating the issue.

On paper, the closures seem reasonable. Many of the schools are serving only a fraction of their full capacity of students. That's because the number of school-aged children in many major cities has dropped, and as neighborhoods have morphed and gentrified, the distribution of the children still living in them has shifted. Closures allow districts to eliminate administrators, custodians, cafeteria workers and other staff, and to siphon badly needed funding to other schools.

Charter schools also play a role. The taxpayer-funded but independently operated schools have attracted some of the students who used to fill public school seats. Charters in Washington, D.C., now claim more than 40 percent of the city's students. Other cities, such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offer vouchers that allow children to attend parochial or private schools.

But school closures are complicated and can have as many drawbacks as benefits. Opponents argue that local schools help provide a positive anchor for communities, particularly in poor or crime-ridden areas, which suffer a disproportionate number of school closures. And moving students to new schools can be expensive. Washington, D.C., for instance, significantly underestimated the amount of money it would cost to reassign and settle students in new schools after a series of closures in 2008. Moreover, the savings are often limited, at least initially, according to a 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts report that looked at school closures in major cities across the country.

"The money saved as the result of closing schools, at least in the short run, has been relatively small in the context of big-city school-district budgets, with the largest savings achieved when closings were combined with large-scale layoffs. Longer-term savings are difficult to project," the report states.

Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington, D.C., will close permanently at the end of the school year. Officials plan to use the site to create a career and technical "education hub" for students who want to pursue careers in transportation, and the current students will be redistributed to Dunbar, nearly three miles west; Woodson, a couple of miles to the east; and Eastern, to the south.

Principal Gary Washington, who has served at the helm of the school since 2010 and has worked in education for decades, says current students are still a little shell-shocked at the idea of going somewhere else next fall.

Spingarn is an example of a school where enrollment has fallen off in recent years. About 375 students, all of them African-American, currently attend the school, down from 450 last year.

Washington has been in public education long enough to know that enrollment fluctuates, but he says a crop of new charter schools in the area has permanently drawn some of his best students away. The school has also struggled with poor test scores, and the building itself is in need of remodeling. Washington thinks that Spingarn might have retained more students if it had been renovated.

Vulnerable students who may already be struggling to graduate can find the idea of trekking longer distances to unfamiliar schools overwhelming. For Washington, that's cause for concern. He says those at-risk students tend to be the ones who need the most structure, and asking them to attend a new school midway through their high-school years can be risky.

"We have to be very careful," he said. "Some of them we just won back, and now we have to win them back again."

He's planning on contacting the schools that the students will transfer to next year to help facilitate a smooth transition, but acknowledges the process will be tricky.

Melissa Salmanowitz, a spokeswoman for the District of Columbia Public Schools, said officials are doing everything they can to make the transition a smooth one.

"We hope to be able to retain as many students as we can," she said. "We're actively working to recruit and retain students."

She added that they make every effort to assign kids to schools near their homes.

The idea that students will be more likely to succeed if moved from poorly performing schools is debatable. First, they aren't always sent to schools that perform better, and even when they are, long-term improvement is somewhat limited, according to the Pew report.

Safety can also become an issue when students from different schools end up under the same roof, sharing the same turf. A middle school in Southeast Washington, D.C., that was considered for closure will remain open because moving the students to schools full of kids from rival neighborhoods could be dangerous.

"The safety concerns that could undermine our goal to offer a better program and environment for our students compelled us to keep Johnson open," the District of Columbia's closure plan said.

And some people argue that closures will send students fleeing to charter schools, which will further disadvantage public schools and the students who remain in them.

"It's difficult to compete when they're opening new schools," Washington said, adding that charter schools skim off his "highest achieving" students.

But Robert Cane, executive director of the pro-charter-school organization Friends of Choice in Urban Schools in Washington, D.C., says that charter schools could help fill some of the void left by the closed schools if the public school system would offer them more buildings for purchase or lease.

"If they would give us the buildings, high-performing charter schools would expand into those buildings and there would be more [schools] in those neighborhoods," Cane said.

Cane argues that charter schools actually serve a higher proportion of minority students than public schools, and that those students do better than they do in public schools.

"People don't leave schools for no reason," he said. "People don't like to change schools. They do it for a reason. We're not anti-school system. We'd be delighted if the school system got better and could hang onto students, because all we care about is that every student gets a better education, but for some reason--or reasons--the school system has not been able to make that happen."

Thelma, who declined to give her last name, will graduate from Spingarn in the spring and plans to join the military. The 18-year-old doesn't think she's learned enough to succeed in college and says she's not sure closing the school and redistributing the students is such a bad idea.

"Some of the kids are really disrespectful," she said as she hoisted a backpack over her shoulder after class.

But the reality that this particular school will no longer be theirs come June still upsets some of the students.

"I don't like it," Kevin, a 16-year-old junior said as he headed for track practice. He's worn a Spingarn jersey for three years, but if he plays sports next year, he'll be wearing a Woodson uniform instead.

"Spingarn is my school," he said. "I love it. There's just something about it. I'm really sad to see the school close."