Parents cry: 'Don't close our school'

"I don't care if you are going to close Sherman school," declared an angry mother in a recent phone call to the Madison, Wis., school superintendent's office. "I'm going to send my children there anyway."

Most school officials have nothing but sympathy these days for such parental frustration -- and they're hearing a lot more of it.

It's all part of the fallout from the increasingy common decision across the country to close schools as one answer to the declining enrollment problem.

Because of lower birthrates in recent years, there are 3 million fewer students in US public schools than there were 10 years ago. The number of school buildings is down by 3,456, according to the National Center for Educational STatistics.

Most of the buildings taken out of service so far have been elementary schools. But the 1980s the impact of the enrollment drop is expected to fall much mor heavily on high schools.

US regions experiencing the greatest enrollment declines to date are the Midwest (the Dakotas top the list) and the Northeast. The reach is all the way from the inner city to the outermost suburbs.

Yet enrollment in the Far West and southwest has been growing. And sometimes there is a rise and fall within the same school district as families move for job or other reasons. In the center of Jefferson County, colo., 11 schools were closed two years ago for want of children. At the same time the demand for more classroom space in other parts of the county has been so intense that 32 schools are operating on a year-round basis, and five new schools are slated to open next fall.

The movie for closing schools, where it happens, is largely financial. Education policymakers reason that it makes poor sense to support fuel and maintenance costs of increasingly empty buildings. But the logic of such arguments and the fact that enrollment figures are usually predictable well in advance does not make closing a school any less an emotional, and political, issue. And deciding which school to shut down is touchiest issue of all.

Parents, who as taxpayers may favor cost-efficiency moves, suddenly find it outrageous that their children's school has been targeted for closing. For teachers and principals, some of whom may have served two decades or more in the same building, the call to shift to another school or in some cases to be laif off often creates a serious morale problem.

"Sometimes it divides the community, and it can cost the superitendent and the school board their seats," observes Don Davies, president of the Institute for Responsive Education in Boston, a group which recently issued a paperback of case studies called "Rising above Decline."

It says that closing a school "is one of the most controversial actions a school board can take. It's a tough, tough decision, and you can't ignore the politics of it."

Indeed, to hear Madison, Wis., school superintendent Douglas Ritchie tell it, convincing the school board to "recognize the problem for what it is" can be the hardest job of all.

Though Madison has closed about one-third of its elementary schools over the last 10 years, superintendent Ritchie says that on some closings there was a wait of six years until a school board majority supported the move. Millions of taxpayer dollars were wasted by the wait, he contends.

Madison board elections will be held April 1 and the key issue for voters is whether candidates support more school closings.

Some education experts, with strong backing from both parents and teachers, argue that closng schools is the easy, knee-jerk reaction to the enrollment problem and that other options, more economical and educationally sound, are being ignored. The prediction by some demographers of another baby boom for the 1990s bolsters their case.

"My feeling is that people often close schools because it's the first thing they think of," says Susan Abramowitz who worked closely on coordinating the results of the National Institute of Education's study on declining enrollment. "No one has proven thatin every situatin it's the most cost-effective thing to do. People focus on closing as a solution without really looking at the consequences of it."

In some cases communities have opted to keep half-empty schools open and running by parceling out their unused space to other non-profit community agencies. Others have managed to preserve the neighborhood school by broadening its offerings. A local Parent Teacher Association in Austin, Texas, managed to save one local school by suggesting it become an enrichment or open-enrollment school.

Teacher organizations, which also favor keeping schools open wherever possible ("We think closing them should only be a last resort," says American Federation of Teachers spokeswoman Phyllis Frank.), urge seizing the opportunity to have smaller classes, new courses, and other quality improvements.

"Too many people assume that growth is the only way to get any better," says Dr. William Graybeal of the National Education Association. "Many are saying this is our big chance to do what we've always wanted to do but never had the money for."

Whatever the decision on what to do about declining enrollment, experts agree that the process used in reaching it is crucial. The earlier parents and citizens are involved in the discussion and the more options considered, they say, the better.

"Where the heat really builds and the explosions occur is when the school system tries to carry a closing decision along unilaterally," explains Bill Rious, senior associate with the National Committee for Citizens in Education.

Many school officials, admitting they have learned a lot from others' mistakes in the past, now ask citizens advisory committees to help out and schedule public hearings on the problem.

"How it's approached is half the battle," insists John Sommi, superintendent of schools in Bethpage, N.Y. That district has closed some elementary schools and has just appointed its second advisory group to look at high school enrollment needs for the years ahead. When citizens challenged the district's enrollment count -- "No one wanted to believe it was going down" -- school officials delayed one school closing a year until a thorough review of old figures and a new census could be taken. "They've got to believe your figures," Superintendent sommi explains.

"There is a great need for very clear information," says Mrs. Virginia Sparling, president of the National Congress of Parent Teacher Associations. "Parents don't just want to know that you're closing a school. They want to know all the costs involved, about the safety of busing children to the new school, and whether or not the new school will be overcrowded.They want lots of answers."

Many citizens also want to know what will happen to the vacated neighborhood school if they support its shutdown, suggests Ellen Bussard of Educational Facilities Laboratories Inc. Some former schools have been turned into office buildings or condominums. Many, she adds, have ben converted into school administrative offices.Others have been made into community schools, often including a senior citizen center and courses tailored especially to adults.

The fact that enrollment could rise again has persuaded some school systems to hang onto the vacated buildings by leasing them out with minimal changes so they will not be forced to build anew in another five or 10 years.

Though deciding what to do about declining enrollment bears heavily on the morale of affected teachers and administrators, it does not appear to bear that heavily on them in terms of lost jobs. While some are let go and many principals are forced to go back into teaching, normal attrition and tight teacher contracts tend to keep layoffs to a minimum.

Indeed, for a mix of reasons including the recent mushrooming of special education classes, the pupil-teacher ratio is lower than it was a decade ago. There are 144,000 more teachers on duty despite the fall in enrollment.

"We're assuming from what we see on staff numbers that people aren't being fired," says Tom Drews of the National Center of Educational Statistics.

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