On a recent morning at the Chalmers School of Excellence on Chicago’s West Side, five preschool and kindergarten students finished drawings. Four staff members, including a teacher and a tutor, chatted with them about colors and shapes.
The summer program offers the personalized support parents love. But behind the scenes, Principal Romian Crockett worries that the school is getting dangerously small.
Chalmers has lost nearly a third of its enrollment during the pandemic, down to 215 students. In Chicago, COVID-19 has exacerbated the downturn that preceded the virus: Predominantly black neighborhoods such as Chalmers’ North Lawndale, long plagued by investment cuts, have witnessed an exodus of families over the past decade.
The number of small schools like Chalmers is growing in many American cities as public school enrollment is declining. Last school year, more than one in five elementary schools in New York had fewer than 300 students. In Los Angeles, this figure exceeded one in four. It rose to almost one in three in Chicago and one in two in Boston, according to a Chalkbeat/Associated Press analysis.
Most of these schools weren’t originally planned to be small, and educators fear that budgets will be tight in the coming years, even as schools recover from disruptions caused by the pandemic.
“When you lose kids, you lose resources,” said Crockett, headmaster of the Chalmers School. “It affects your ability to serve children with very high needs.”
State law prohibits Chicago from closing or merging schools until 2025. And in the US, COVID-19 relief money is helping subsidize shrinking schools. But when the money runs out in a few years, officials will face a difficult choice: keep schools open despite financial difficulties, or close them, upsetting communities seeking stability for their children.
“My concern is that we will close when everyone has been working so hard,” said Yvonne Wooden, a member of the Chalmers School Board. Her children attended kindergarten through eighth grade and now have two grandchildren. “It will really hurt our neighborhood.”
Many districts, such as Chicago, give schools money per student. This means that small schools sometimes struggle to pay the fixed costs of principal, consultant and building maintenance.
To solve this problem, many are giving extra money to smaller schools, diverting dollars away from larger schools. In Chicago, the district spends an average of $19,000 a year per student in smaller high schools, while larger students receive $10,000, according to Chalkbeat/AP analysis.
“I love small schools, but small schools are very expensive,” Chicago School Principal Pedro Martinez recently told the school board. “We can get some really creative, innovative models, but we need funding.”
At the same time, these schools are often strained. Very small schools have fewer clubs, sports and arts programs. Some elementary schools combine students from different grades into one class, although Martinez has promised that this will not happen next year.
The paradox is illustrated by the high school Manley Career Academy on the west side of Chicago. It currently serves 65 students and the cost per student has jumped to $40,000, although schools like Manly offer several electives, sports and extracurricular activities.
“We’re spending $40,000 per student just to offer the bare minimum,” said Hal Woods of the advocacy group Kids First Chicago, which studied the district’s declining enrollment. “It’s not actually $40,000 per student.”
Small schools are popular with families, teachers, and community members because of their cohesion and support. Some argue that districts should put more dollars into these schools, many of which are in predominantly black and Hispanic areas hit hard by the pandemic. Schools serve as community centers and places of local pride, even if they lose students, as in the case of North Lawndale.
The race is also of great importance. Nationwide, schools with large numbers of students of color are more likely to close, and those in affected communities often feel misdirected.
The prospect of school closures is especially dangerous in Chicago, where 50 schools were closed in 2013, most of them in predominantly black neighborhoods. The move undermined trust between residents and the area and, according to University of Chicago researchmarkedly disrupted the education of low-income students.
In Boston, where the district has been losing students long before the pandemic, families are skeptical about school closures.
Among the schools most at risk is PA Shaw Elementary School in Boston’s Dorchester borough. Resurrected after a previous closure in 2014, the school had just over 150 students last year, up from 250 in 2018. After two classes were scheduled to be eliminated earlier this year in what some see as a precursor to closure, the school district has faced backlash from parents. and teachers.
Among the parents who supported the school was Brenda Ramsey, whose 7-year-old daughter, Emersyn Wise, is in second grade. When Ramsey became homeless and went to visit family during the pandemic, Shaw teachers drove him for half an hour to deliver school assignments. School staff later helped Ramsey find permanent housing.
Ramsey, 32, still remembers the joy she felt when she and her two daughters first attended the Show.
“The principal looked like them—it was a young black woman who was happy to see them,” she said.
With the fate of the school now in doubt, Ramsey contemplates whether to leave Emersin there.
Ramsey’s dilemma exemplifies what the district calls “the enrollment cycle”: enrollment in schools is falling, leading to financial instability, which encourages even more families to drop out of school. The problem is often exacerbated in schools with large numbers of students of color.
And when schools are threatened with closure, it’s “devastating” for families, said Suleyka Soto, acting director of the Boston Alliance for Educational Justice, which advocates for underrepresented students.
“That means you have to root out,” she said. “And then if the parents don’t like it, they will take their kids out of the public school system, which will exacerbate the toxic cycle again.”
However, some urban school districts that are losing students, including Denver, Indianapolis as well as Kansas City, Missouri. are considering school closures. Earlier this year, the Oakland School Board voted to close several small schools despite fierce protests.
“School budgets have been slashed to keep more schools open,” said former Oakland board member Shanti Gonzalez, who resigned in May shortly after voting in support of school closures. “There are really terrible trade-offs.”
Elsewhere, leaders backed by federal COVID-19 relief funds continue to invest in these schools.
Officials said Chicago will send about $140 million of the $2.8 billion in COVID-19 relief it has received to help support small schools this school year. Martinez, who took over as principal last fall, sidestepped talk of school closures, saying he wants to explore how the district can make its campuses more family-friendly — and demand more money from the state.
in Los Angeles and New Yorkofficials say they are focused on luring students back into the system, not closing schools.
But federal aid funds will soon run out: counties must budget this money by September 2024. When this happens, it may be difficult for districts to keep all their small schools afloat.
“This is a huge problem,” said Bruce Fuller, an education researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “The Superintendents will find it increasingly difficult to justify keeping these places open as the number of these schools continues to grow.”