When a school closes for good in Joiner, Arkansas, the national media barely notices—but the community certainly does.
“The impact is felt more quickly in rural areas,” said Tequilla Banks, an executive vice president with TNTP who grew up in Joiner and has worked in nearby districts. “There aren’t other wraparound services, right? There aren’t other venues. Even extracurricular activities—it’s harder to get kids to those if the school isn’t right there.”
Research has shown that although changing schools can negatively affect students, the impact of moving to a better school after a school closure can be positive. Similarly, research in New York City found that closing low-performing high schools benefitted future students, who instead attended other, higher-performing schools. But none of this research accounts for what happens to the community.
“The decisions that we make, when they affect the communities our kids live in, they also affect the kids,” Banks said. “We make these decisions to close schools in isolation, but they have unintended consequences that very well may undermine our efforts.”
To begin to understand those unintended consequences, we must first understand which communities and students school closures affect.
Where do schools close?
Urban researchers Megan Gallagher and Amanda Gold set out to quantify the problem, analyzing school and census data to track which schools were open one fall and closed the next.
They found that every year, about 2 percent of schools that close their doors for the summer never reopen, affecting more than 200,000 students annually.
Of the approximately 2,000 schools that close for good each summer, the majority are in suburban areas. In the 2012-2013 school year, 53 percent of school closures happened in suburban areas, 26 percent in rural areas, and 21 percent in urban areas.
“The typical notion of school closures is that they’re happening in urban areas, and in specific cities like Chicago and Philadelphia and Boston and Newark,” Gallagher said. “This study shows that all kinds of communities, and all kinds of students, have had to cope with school closures.”
Who attends schools that close?
In urban and suburban areas, closures disproportionately affect poor or black students. Though black students are about 31 percent of the population in continually open urban schools, they make up 61 percent of the population in closed urban schools. Similarly, black students account for 14 percent of the students in suburban schools that stay open but 29 percent of students at suburban schools that close. Rural schools that close have slightly lower shares of white students and slightly higher shares of Hispanic students than rural schools that do not close.
This disparity is on display in Michigan right now. Earlier this year, the state of Michigan announced plans to close 38 schools, all of which serve a majority black population. Though 25 of those 38 schools are in Detroit, the rest are scattered in rural and suburban areas. Two suburban districts have filed lawsuits against the state to stop the closures.
Michigan defended its closure plans as essential to educational quality; the schools identified for closure are those that have been in the bottom 5 percent in student performance for at least three consecutive years. But Jean-Claude Brizard, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, learned in Chicago that people judge schools by more than just the numbers.
“When I saw people going on hunger strikes to prevent school closures, it opened my eyes to the history behind why these places were the way they were,” Brizard said. “Initially, I thought of school closure as a footprint issue, or a right-sizing issue, or an educational issue. It became much more organic for me, and, frankly, it made me pause.”
Community change, school change
In urban neighborhoods, school closures can be part of a cycle of disenfranchisement and disinvestment. Gallagher and Gold found that the neighborhoods surrounding closed schools had higher shares of black residents and fewer resources than the neighborhoods surrounding open schools. These neighborhoods had lower earnings, higher poverty rates, lower college completion rates, and lower home values than neighborhoods surrounding nonclosed schools.
Such a cycle is playing out in Baltimore right now. Baltimore City schools recently announced it was facing a $130 million deficit and would try to close that financial gap with closures and layoffs.
One of the schools targeted for closure is Baltimore IT Academy, where David Blount, a former Urban researcher, works as a student teacher. Once a thriving public middle school with 1,200 students, the school lost students when it was converted to a charter in 2010. After the charter operator went bankrupt and closed the school, Baltimore reopened it as a traditional public school. But students had already found other options and the school couldn’t find students to fill its seats. The current enrollment is just 220 students, and about 50 of those students have already left since the impending closure was announced in December 2016. The closure has created stress among the staff and confusion among remaining parents and students.
“A big piece is looking at what sort of investments were being made to help improve the school,” Blount said. “The students were definitely low performing, but people who had been here longer could see that things have gotten better over the years. But when you have decreased enrollment, you get less money, so as time went on they lost a lot of staff.”
Brizard saw the same thing in Chicago, where the schools targeted for closure were often locked in a cycle: high unemployment in the neighborhood would lead to an uptick in crime, which would cause families and teachers to move elsewhere, and then low enrollment would put the school on the chopping block.
“Closing schools in parts of the city, I really came to understand this was not an educational issue, it was a community historical issue as well,” he said.
In rural communities, meanwhile, closures perpetuate a similar but distinct cycle. As agricultural towns have lost jobs and young people have increasingly flocked to cities, population in some rural areas has dwindled. The shrinking enrollment numbers prompt a closure, and then even more people move out.
“Once that’s gone, these towns become almost like ghost towns,” Banks said.
After schools close
Tequilla Banks’s hometown of Joiner, Arkansas, is part of a district that used to have five elementary schools. Now, it has just one, and kids ride buses for 30 to 40 minutes to get there. This is likely the case for many students whose schools close, as Gallagher and Gold’s research found that only 8 percent of closed schools are fully replaced with a school that serves the same grade levels within the community.
Banks recalls attending the annual fall festival at the school, a tradition that brought the whole town together.
“It was like a family reunion,” she said.
A couple years after the elementary school closed in 2000, the mayor of Joiner tried to turn it into a community space, hosting weddings, parties, and town get-togethers. Ultimately, however, it couldn’t bring in enough revenue to support its upkeep; the events ended and the building sat vacant for about five years before finally being torn down.
“The town lost its cohesion, which is one of the things that brings it charm,” Banks said.
Bringing schools back to these communities—or keeping them from closing in the first place—will likely require investing not just in the schools, but also in the towns and cities that house them.
“It's not just the schools, right? It's the housing, it's jobs, it's everything else,” Brizard said. “Schools tend to reflect what's happening, what has happened. So turning around a school, or schools, is, by itself, not the answer, but turning around a community. I’ve become a huge believer in this. The community is the unit of change.”
Urban researchers who study intersections between education and community development find that planning efforts are seldom aligned—but perhaps they should be. After all, a stable population base is critical for school enrollment, and good schools build a stronger community. But political buy-in for community transformation as a means of school transformation can be difficult.
In Baltimore, for example, the state of Maryland is providing $600 million in subsidies to encourage development in the city. But for teachers wondering if the $130 million school district deficit means they’ll lose their jobs, or parents wondering where their kids will go to school, such subsidies can be hard to stomach.
“Some of the theory around this is if you add more development and growth to the city it comes back in some ways. But if you’re in the school and there’s a need for money right now, but a decision to spend money elsewhere, you have to question that,” Blount said.
The resolution may lie in future research. Armed with the data on where schools close, Gallagher and Gold hope to next understand why schools close and to begin a longitudinal study on the effects of school closures on children and communities. Those findings could be used to better predict which schools might close and inform policy so community and school leaders can take steps to turnaround neighborhoods and schools long before those schools—and all the significance and services they bring with them—disappear.
RESEARCH Megan Gallagher and Amanda Gold
GRAPHICS Vivian Hou
EDITORIAL Elizabeth Forney
DESIGN John Wehmann
Photo by Martha Irvine/AP