If you have school-age children, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree with me that smaller schools are usually better. With fewer students, teachers have more time to focus on what specific children actually need to learn at their best, each child gets more one-on-one time, and there’s usually a much more family/community feel to the school as if you are all in this together.
However, there is such a thing as being too small. And far too many of our city schools are learning that all too well.
Take Chalmers School of Excellence on Chicago’s West Side, for example.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, school enrollment decreased, as you might have guessed. But now, even though the pandemic is pretty much over, the school is still missing nearly a third of its students, with no sign of regaining those lost any time soon.
A similar story is seen in numerous cities across the nation.
As a Chalkbeat/Associated Press analysis reports, more than one in five elementary schools in New York City had less than 300 students last year. That figure is closer to one in four for Los Angeles. In Chicago, nearly one in three schools see this. And in Boston, almost every other school has similar numbers.
Now, as I said before, small schools can be good. But at some point, being small can become a liability.
As Chalmers’ Principal Romian Crockett points out, “When you lose kids, you lose resources. That impacts your ability to serve kids with very high needs.”
Or just to serve kids in general.
Most school districts, Chicago included, receive money each year based on how many students they have. This means that fewer children in attendance mean less money. And less money to pay for fixed costs like building maintenance, a counselor, and the principal can quickly become a major struggle.
As schools continue to shrink, school budgets are tightening, classrooms are being closed, and the fear is that some schools, which are usually major community hubs, will be shuttered for good.
Yvonne Wooden, a member of Chalmer’s school council and woman whose own children and now grandchildren, attend the school, worries that “we will shut down when we have all worked so hard.” Besides, it “would really hurt our neighborhood.”
In some cases, districts will send money from larger schools to the smaller ones to help. As the Chalkbeat/AP analysis points out, Chicago gives smaller high schools an average of $19,000 yearly while larger schools get about $10,000.
But it’s still not enough in many cases.
As Chicago schools chief Pedro Martinez recently told the school board, “I love small schools, but small schools are very expensive.”
Plus, as with many, they can’t offer near what the larger schools can anymore.
For instance, Manley Career Academy High School costs about $40,000 per student, thanks to rising costs and fewer enrollments. As a result, the school now only serves 65 students in total. And it cannot offer nearly as many elective courses, extracurricular activities, or sports.
Hal Woods of Kids First Chicago notes that the high cost is hardly worth the experience.
Even more problematic is that the schools most affected by enrollment issues seem to be those with more students of color. In Chicago, 50 schools were closed in 2013, with most located in primarily Black neighborhoods.
Thanks to state law, no school in Chicago can be closed or consolidated until 2025. But that brings little hope to schools in the district. As with many US school districts, they are still relying on federal relief money from COVID-19. But those funds will soon run out.
Those like Martinez will then be faced with a tough decision. Do you shutter the schools to keep others alive, upsetting whole communities and neighborhoods? Or try to keep them open, cutting budgets even more?
For now, Martinez is avoiding any talk of school closures. Instead, he says he wants the district to focus on how it can bring in more students and make schools and their campuses more attractive to families. School officials in New York City and Los Angeles have similar goals.
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt Democratic city leaders to stop their soft-on-crime ways that are ravaging these same communities and making them unappealing to those with young children.