The Lawrence school district faces dramatic budget cuts over the coming months and is considering closing schools. In making these cuts we urge the school board and administration to find solutions that do not involve closing any east-side neighborhood elementary school, for two reasons.
First, these schools are the anchors for their neighborhoods and our historic downtown. Studies show that closing a neighborhood school significantly erodes property values and causes young families to locate elsewhere. The east side bore the brunt of school closings several years ago. More closings there could tip Lawrence’s historic core irrevocably away from family-based neighborhoods and toward rentals and decay.
Second, a large body of research shows that small neighborhood schools are the most efficient means of achieving the district’s goals of improving student learning and narrowing the achievement gap between low-income, minority students and others.
Well over 100 studies show that small neighborhood schools foster key educational benefits:
• Students in small neighborhood schools learn faster, achieve more, and graduate at higher rates than comparable students in larger, non-neighborhood schools. Studies find that smaller schools are especially beneficial to low-income and minority students and are especially crucial to the success of efforts at narrowing the achievement gap.
• Small neighborhood schools cultivate better student attitudes. Their students have a stronger sense of belonging and more active engagement in learning.
• Small neighborhood schools reduce discipline problems. Students in these schools are better known by teachers across multiple grade levels and, as a result, there are fewer discipline problems, truancy issues, and better attendance.
• Small neighborhood schools better engage students in extracurricular activities, and this involvement is correlated with better attendance and improved learning outcomes.
• Small neighborhood schools encourage walking to school and this improves children’s health and active engagement in learning.
• Small neighborhood schools foster better teacher attitudes. As one researcher put it, “large schools appear to promote negative teacher perceptions of school administration and low staff morale. In small schools, teachers are more likely to participate in planning and analyze practice, and are likely to expend extra efforts to ensure that the students achieve and the school succeeds.”
• Small neighborhood schools better facilitate parental involvement in their children’s learning and foster closer parent-teacher relationships.
A large body of research also shows that closing a school and transferring its students harms their academic achievement by tearing apart the close relationships that facilitate learning. These disruptions hit low-income and minority students especially hard.
What about cost? The school board is grappling with data suggesting that the cost per pupil is somewhat higher in our smaller east-side schools. But cost per pupil is a misleading measure.
For one thing, if student learning is our top priority we should measure efficiency in relation to learning and successful graduation. Smaller neighborhood schools are more efficient than larger schools when measured by cost per graduate. This, too, is the consistent finding of research. Student learning should remain our consistent focus and goal, especially in difficult times.
For another, costs per pupil, as computed by the district, are somewhat higher in some of these schools than elsewhere simply because their enrollment is lower. But enrollment numbers are the direct result of district policies. Change the boundaries just a little and these schools will have more students. Turn one of these schools into a magnet school, perhaps a dual-language immersion program that draws higher voluntary enrollments from elsewhere in the district, and the enrollment numbers will increase. At New York School, for example, a net gain of only 68 students would bring costs per pupil to the district average.
Small neighborhood schools are now widely recognized as the state of the art. Many school districts that long ago closed small schools in favor of mega-schools are now struggling to recreate what they lost. They didn’t save the money they thought they would and they lost something of great value: their small neighborhood schools and their older neighborhoods.
Just as Lawrence’s historic downtown is the envy of many cities, other places would love to have our historic neighborhood schools. These schools are the key to our students’ high achievement levels and to our ongoing efforts to narrow the achievement gap. Don’t close our historic neighborhood schools. Small schools are better. They are more efficient and effective at what matters most: student education. And they help to sustain our city’s historic core and beautiful downtown.