Cities face crisis as fewer children enroll and schools shrink | Richmond FreePress | Wender Mind Kids

 Cities face crisis as fewer children enroll and schools shrink |  Richmond FreePress

CHICAGO On a recent morning at Chalmers School of Excellence on Chicago’s West Side, five preschool and kindergarten children finished their drawings. Four staff members, including a teacher and a tutor, spoke to them about it

colors and shapes.

The summer program offers the kind of one-to-one support parents love. But behind the scenes, Principal Romian Crockett fears the school is becoming dangerously small.

Chalmers lost nearly a third of its enrollment during the pandemic, shrinking to 215 students. In Chicago, COVID-19 exacerbated the decline that preceded the virus: Predominantly black neighborhoods like Chalmers’ North Lawndale, long plagued by divestments, have seen an exodus of families over the past decade.

Small schools like Chalmers are growing in many American cities as enrollment in public schools declines. More than one in five New York elementary schools had fewer than 300 students in their senior year. In Los Angeles, that number was over one in four. In Chicago, it’s grown to nearly one in three, according to a Chalkbeat/AP analysis, and in Boston it’s approaching one in two.

Most of these schools were not originally designed to be small, and educators fear budgets will tighten in the coming years even as schools recover from the disruption of the pandemic.

“When you lose children, you lose resources,” said Mr. Crockett, the Chalmers school principal. “It affects your ability to minister to children with very high needs.”

A state law prohibits Chicago from closing or consolidating schools until 2025. And across the US, COVID-19 relief funds are helping to subsidize shrinking schools. But when the money runs out in a few years, officials face a difficult choice: keep schools open despite the financial strain, or close them, angering communities looking for stability for their children.

“I’m worried that we’re going to close when we’ve all worked so hard,” said Yvonne Wooden, who sits on the Chalmers School Board. Her children went to preschool through eighth grade and two grandchildren are now attending her. “It would really hurt our neighborhood.”

The pandemic accelerated the decline in enrollment in many districts as families switched to homeschooling, charter schools and other options. Students have moved away or disappeared from the school list for unknown reasons.

Many districts like Chicago give schools money for each student. This means that small schools sometimes struggle to pay the fixed costs – the headmaster, a consultant and the upkeep of the building.

To counteract this, many small schools are allocating extra money and diverting dollars from larger schools. In Chicago, according to the Chalkbeat/AP analysis, the district spends an average of $19,000 per student in small high schools, while students in larger schools receive $10,000.

“I love small schools, but small schools are very expensive,” Chicago principal Pedro Martinez recently told the school board. “We can get some really creative, innovative models, but we need the funding.”

At the same time, these schools are often overburdened. Very small schools offer fewer clubs, sports and arts programs. Some elementary schools are grouping students from different grades in the same classroom, although Mr Martinez has vowed that will not happen next year.

Manley Career Academy High School on Chicago’s West Side illustrates the paradox. It now serves 65 students and the cost per student has risen to $40,000, although schools like Manley offer few elective courses, physical education and after-curricular activities.

“We’re spending $40,000 per student just to provide basic necessities,” said Hal Woods of the advocacy group Kids First Chicago, which has been researching the district’s enrollment decline. “It’s not really a $40,000-per-student student experience.”

Small schools are popular with families, teachers, and community members for their close, supportive atmosphere. Some argue that counties should pour more dollars into these schools, many in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods that have been hit hard by the pandemic. Schools serve as community centers and places of local pride even when they lose students – as is the case in North Lawndale.

Race also plays a big role. Nationally, schools with more students of color are more likely to be closed, and people in affected communities often feel unfairly targeted.

The prospect of school closures is particularly tense in Chicago, which closed 50 schools in 2013, most in predominantly black neighborhoods. The move destroyed trust between residents and the district and significantly disrupted learning for low-income students, according to research from the University of Chicago.

Chicago will use about $140 million of the $2.8 billion in COVID-19 relief funds to prop up small schools this school year, officials said. Martinez, who took over as principal last fall, has avoided talk of closures, saying he wants to explore how the district can make its campus more attractive to families — and is pushing for more money from the state.

In contrast, Richmond Public Schools in Richmond, Virginia are now working on plans to build a new George Wythe High School on the South Side. This follows the opening of three new schools — Marsh Elementary, Cardinal Elementary and River City Middle — during the pandemic.