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D-11 bucks conventional wisdom to close schools



District 11 Superintendent Kenneth Burnley's plan to close five neighborhood schools flies in the face of emerging wisdom that smaller schools foster a learning-friendly atmosphere.

Yet in the wake of the district's latest round of budget cuts, Burnley has recommended students from East Middle School and Stratton, Ivywild, Midland and Pike elementary schools be bused to larger schools. Such efforts to consolidate schools -- which have been the trend across America -- saves money on per-pupil funding. But the toll that such warehousing has on students, say some experts, can be devastating.

'I'm always sorry to hear stories like [the proposed D-11 closures],' said Kathleen Cotton, a research associate with the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory. 'Smaller neighborhood schools have a greater sense of community and fewer problems with discipline, violence, truancy and grade repetition. They're becoming a thing of the past, though, because larger schools make for lower educational costs per student.

'I think that's a false economy, though,' she said. 'Research has repeatedly found that small schools are superior to large schools on most measures, and this is even more true with minority students and students of low socioeconomic status.'

Cotton said that over the past half-century, the number of U.S. public schools dropped from 200,000 in 1940 to 62,000 in 1990, even though the student population rose by 70 percent. Average enrollments ballooned in that interim from 127 to 653 -- a 500 percent increase.

Ineffecient and expensive

Burnley and other administrators unveiled the plan to close schools as part of a $5.29 million package of budget cuts at last week's school board meeting. The board will take a formal vote on the recommended package next Wednesday, Feb. 23.

Last week, Burnley explained his rationale in recommending the five schools be closed. Declining enrollments, he said, have made them inefficient and expensive to operate.

It costs the district an average of $802 to educate each kid at a 400-student elementary school, he said, and $985 at a 750-student middle school. Per-pupil costs at the schools targeted for closure range from $1,255 (East) to $2,120 (Midland).

Closing these schools and moving their teachers, staff and the 1,230 students to larger schools in adjacent neighborhoods, he said, could produce annual operating savings of $1.19 million.

These are savings, however, that could cost the administration considerably in community support.

Results from a district-wide survey of parents taken in December showed that "cutting small elementary schools" were among the least-favored budget-cutting options with district residents. (A subsequent January survey replaced the strong wording of the previous study with the more innocuous question of whether "inefficient schools" should be cut.)

And, a number of parents and even school administrators have continued to criticize the proposed closures as contrary to what they value most in the education system: the small, neighborhood-oriented school.

What is lost

Stratton Elementary Principal Mary Primmins notes that her school produced the second highest CSAP scores in the district last year.

"This school is a magnet for academic excellence," she said last week. "We have a strong, loving community with wonderfully-supportive parents and a caring staff. Education is working here. Why mess with it?"

"I live ten houses away from Stratton," added parent Amelia Nappi. "I bought my house in this neighborhood eight years ago to guarantee that my kids could go here. Now they want to shut us down and bus our kids to Audubon."

"This school," said Midland Elementary Principal Denver Hayes, "is the focal point of life in this community. Almost all the kids live within eight blocks of school, but they're going to get bused across Highway 24 to another neighborhood."

Noelle Cox claims Pike Elementary has given her fourth and first graders "a wonderful educational experience."

"Losing this school will destroy our sense of community and drop our property values," she said. "Nobody with kids will want to move here."

Some East Middle School parents report that morale in their neighborhood has never recovered from closure of South Middle School and Lowell Elementary in 1982.

"There's an assumption that our kids are expendable," said parent Sam Dunlap. "It's always our school that gets closed, our kids that get sent somewhere else."

"We're always the underdog," agreed Rebecca Price, whose son teaches in District 11 and granddaughter attends East.

Views from the board

"I've really struggled with this issue," said D-11 board member Karen Teja in a telephone interview. "We have a responsibility, though, to look at the big picture and mitigate the crunch for 32,000 kids. We're already cutting a million out of administration, and that will have a trickle-down effect on what services we can provide.

Board member Delia Armstrong-Busby argues that deeper administrative cuts are preferable to cutting what she calls "one of the best things about our education system: the small neighborhood school."

"We keep talking about quality of education," she said. "But what we have here is a group of highly paid administrators -- four with salaries and benefits in excess of $145,000, 40 in excess of $75,000 -- closing neighborhood schools like Stratton with a long history of excellent performance."

"I have an emotional aversion to balancing the books on the backs of the babies, which is what the elementary kids are."

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