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Fort Worth ISD could shut some campuses down due to enrollment declines. They aren’t alone

As officials in the Fort Worth Independent School District study the possibility of closing down some campuses due to enrollment declines, the district is just one of many nationwide facing that prospect.

As more districts are forced to consider shuttering some of their schools to save on costs, education experts and community members affected by school closures say it’s critical that district leaders invite the parents and others into the process as early as possible, and to make sure any decisions are made based on what’s best for students and communities, not only with finances in mind.

“You have to be student-centered and student-focused, and then people-focused,” said Edgar Palacios, founder of an education advocacy group in Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City Public Schools closed down two elementary schools at the beginning of this school year.

Fort Worth ISD board approves facilities study

Last September, Fort Worth ISD’s board approved a $2 million study to look at the district’s capacity, including “rightsizing recommendations,” which are expected to include campus closures. The resolution includes a process to gather feedback from the community before any schools are closed.

The district’s enrollment declined by about 17% between 2016 and last year, a trend that was driven by a number of factors, including increased competition from charter schools, the cost of housing in Fort Worth’s urban core and birth rates that never fully recovered after the Great Recession.

District leaders say those enrollment declines have left many campuses under-enrolled. David Saenz, the district’s chief of strategic initiatives and partnerships, said the district can’t offer students as high-quality an experience at campuses that are under-enrolled. Special programs like fine arts and athletics become more expensive to offer, he said. For some classes, like languages and advanced courses, the district can find creative solutions like building online options, he said, but those solutions aren’t feasible for every class.

Schools across the U.S. face enrollment declines

If Fort Worth ISD does end up closing campuses, it wouldn’t be the only district in the country faced with that decision. Last month, the district appeared on a list of two dozen school districts at highest risk of campus closures published by the education news site The 74. All districts on the list had heavy concentrations of schools that lost 20% or more of their enrollment between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years.

Sofoklis Goulas, a researcher for the Brookings Institution, said it’s normal for there to be a certain amount of churn in school enrollments, as families move from one area to another or choose different schooling options for their kids. But the declines in public school enrollment seen across the country since the pandemic are atypical, he said. An unusual number of schools nationwide have lost 20% of their enrollments over the past few years, and many are well beyond that threshold, he said.

In a paper published in October, Goulas and a colleague noted that there has been a sharp uptick in the number of students who have left traditional school districts for private schools, homeschooling or some other non-public option since 2019. At the same time, charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, continued the steady growth they’ve seen over the past two decades. If those trends continue, Goulas said, it will continue to put financial pressure on public school districts, likely forcing more of them to consider closing campuses.

Do school closures really save money?

When school districts decide to close campuses, they typically do so for one of three reasons, said Terrance Green, a professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education: They need to save on operating costs, they want to improve academic performance or they hope to improve educational equity. But often, closing schools doesn’t accomplish any of those things, he said.

Districts that close campuses often don’t save as much money as they anticipate, Green said. That’s at least in part because maintaining those buildings continues to cost money, even if districts don’t hold classes in them, he said — districts have to pay for security to make sure those buildings aren’t vandalized, for example. Many districts also find their transportation costs increase when they close campuses because they have to bus students farther to school every day, he said.

Typically, the only way districts save a substantial amount of money when they close schools is if they have massive layoffs at the same time, Green said. For most districts, payroll makes up the majority of the budget. If districts move most of the teachers and support staff from a shuttered campus to other schools in the district, those salaries are still on the books.

Research suggests that school closures often leave students worse off academically, as well. A 2017 study from Stanford University’s Credo Center for Research on Educational Outcomes found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that when districts close low-performing schools, students who move to higher-performing schools tend to do better academically, and those who move to lower-performing schools tend to do worse. The effect was most pronounced among low-income Black and Hispanic students, the report indicated, but it held true across most racial and ethnic groups.

But when districts close campuses, most students end up going to schools that are performing worse than the ones they left, the study indicated. For the study, researchers looked at school closures in 26 states between 2006 and 2013. During that period, a little less than half of the students who were displaced by school closures in those states landed in schools that were stronger academically than the ones they attended before the closures, researchers wrote.

Students who move to a new school after their home campus closes also tend to be more likely to have attendance problems, Green said. Research suggests that students who feel that there are adults at their school who know them and care about them are less likely to be chronically absent. But when students move to a new campus, they lose the relationships they had with teachers and staff at their old schools.

That lack of relationships, combined with the fact that most students will have to travel farther to their new schools, can lead many to rack up more absences than they did before the change, Green said. Students who miss too many school days are at greater risk of a host of academic consequences, including dropping out of high school and struggling to read on grade level.

Green said there are steps districts can take to soften the blow of school closures. District leaders need to invite the community into the process from the beginning, he said. Parents, grandparents and students have lived experience in the communities those schools serve that district officials generally don’t have, he said, so they have better insight into what roles those campuses play in their communities. District leaders need to take community input seriously and act on it when appropriate, he said.

Kansas City schools hit pause on school closure plan

Community feedback was instrumental in changing plans for school closures in another major urban school district last year. In October 2022, school officials in Kansas City proposed closing 10 campuses due to under-enrollment and the rising costs of maintaining aging buildings. At the time, Kansas City Public Schools officials said the proposed closures were a part of a larger plan to consolidate under-enrolled campuses and modernize outdated facilities, ultimately giving students a better experience.

After community outcry, the district’s board paused that plan and voted in January 2023 to close just two campuses: Longfellow Elementary School and Troost Elementary School, both of which district officials said were under-enrolled and outdated. The Kansas City Star reported that Longfellow was in the worst shape of any campus in the district. The building had $6.5 million in deferred maintenance costs and had to close briefly in October 2022 after a carbon monoxide leak sent several students to the hospital. Kansas City Public Schools officials didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

The biggest problem with the district’s original plan was that officials didn’t communicate it well, said Palacios, founder of the Latinx Educational Collaborative, a Kansas City-based nonprofit that advocates for better representation of Latinos in public schools. Officials didn’t invite community input until fairly late in the process, he said, after a consultant had already drawn up plans for closures. So those plans took local residents by surprise, he said. The district also didn’t do a good job of reaching out to Spanish-speaking families, he said. About 30% of the district’s students are Hispanic.

Another issue was that the burden of school closures fell almost completely on Black and Hispanic communities, Palacios said. Nearly all of the schools slated for closure were located east of Troost Avenue, in the city’s predominantly Black, historically under-resourced neighborhoods.

In the months that followed, Palacios said, the district has done a better job of communicating with families. Part of the difference could be due to a change in leadership, he said — Jennifer Collier, who served as the district’s interim superintendent through much of the community feedback process, is now the permanent superintendent. But district officials have also acknowledged that they could have handled the process better, and seem committed to building stronger relationships within the community going forward, he said.

Even though the district backed off on its initial plans to shutter 10 campuses, the two closures it ended up making were still hard for families whose kids went to those schools. Rebecca Sundquist’s two kids went to Longfellow Elementary last year. But after the district closed Longfellow, they moved to Primitivo Garcia Elementary School, a little over two miles northwest of their old school.

Sunquist said their family lives only about two blocks away from Longfellow, which made morning drop-offs and afternoon pick-ups convenient. Sundquist had also volunteered at Longfellow for several years, so she knew most of the teachers and how the campus worked.

In the last months of last school year, after the district announced it would close Longfellow over the summer, several teachers at the school resigned, Sundquist said. Her son, then a third-grader, was in a class of about 30 students. The class’ assistant teacher left before the end of the year, leaving the teacher to manage 30 kids on her own, she said. The teacher handled the situation as well as she could, Sundquist said, but none of the kids got as much one-on-one help.

The last two years have been tough for Sundquist’s kids. Most of her son’s friends from Longfellow went to other schools following the change, she said, so he feels alone at his new school. Her daughter, who’s now a second-grader, was more traumatized by the evacuation after the carbon monoxide leak at Longfellow, Sundquist said, so she was ready to say goodbye to the old building and move somewhere new.

Looking back on the school closure process, Sundquist said she wishes the district had done a better job of communicating with families last year, so the decision didn’t take as many people by surprise. She also wishes the district had built new campuses to consolidate under-enrolled schools before they closed buildings down. That way, students who had to relocate could start over together in a new school instead of being dropped into another under-enrolled campus and having to learn new rules, routines and procedures that other kids already knew, she said.

But mostly, she said, she’s sorry the school closures had to happen at all.