Community group advocates alternative to Columbus school closures

Rather than consolidating facilities, the Columbus Education Justice Coalition wants Columbus City Schools to embrace the ‘community schools’ model adopted in places such as Cincinnati.
The long-shuttered East Columbus School
The long-shuttered East Columbus SchoolAaron Turner of via Wikimedia Commons

Following years of declining national enrollment, reports surfaced at the end of 2023 that public school districts across the U.S. could be facing building closures in the coming years. Among the districts impacted is Columbus City Schools (CCS), which earlier this spring announced a task force to advise on the potential consolidation and closing of schools.

The task force followed the CCS hiring of an outside consulting firm, which performed an assessment of the district’s facilities, reporting that a handful of buildings were operating at less than 50 percent capacity. (The district’s current enrollment of 45,000 students has been steadily declining since the early 1970s, when it peaked at 110,000 students.)

It seems like an open-and-shut case. School buildings should be closed if they are being underutilized. The district can save money on maintenance costs, and students that attended the closed buildings can be shuffled around to neighboring schools within the district. 

However, as with most issues related to public education, the matter is not so black and white. 

According to past studies, closing schools has saved little money overall and has done irreparable damage to the neighborhoods near the closed schools. Historically, it has been Black and Brown neighborhoods most impacted by school building closures

If the district follows through with its plan to close buildings, parents will have to consider other options, including charter schools. In fact, it is a likely scenario that charter schools will move into those school buildings CCS chooses to vacate – it is a law in Ohio that any unused public school building must first be offered to charter schools before it can be sold.

Losing more students to charter schools is exactly what the district is looking to avoid. Al Edmondson is the co-chair of the district’s Community Facilities Task Force, a task force put together by the district earlier this year to make recommendations to the school board on building closures and repairs. The group is made up of various representatives from the community (not just district employees) with invested interest in Columbus City Schools. 

“We have a great group of community members [on the task force] and we all have the best interest for what the kids need, and we want to be able to make the right recommendations,” Edmondson said. “Once we do get these recommendations, it’s probably an opportunity for us to bring some of our kids back from charter schools.”

Edmondson said officials are still early in the decision-making process and there have not been any final determinations made on what will happen to the school buildings once they are closed. He is open to solutions other than selling them. “I would like to see some of the buildings be able to provide for those who didn’t graduate or still want to come back to get their degrees,” Edmondson said. 

Many in the Columbus community are pushing for the district to avoid closing buildings, including a nonprofit called Columbus Education Justice Coalition (CEJC). The CEJC is a group of community organizations, parents, students and educators advocating for an equitable and quality public education for CCS students. The district’s plan to close buildings has been a hot topic among the group.

“At a time when CCS enrollment has grown for two consecutive years, and Columbus grew faster than any other city in late 2023, mass school closures as the board’s number one priority is disheartening and shortsighted,” said Stuart McIntyre, a steering committee member of the CEJC. “Why is the conversation about closing schools rather than transforming them?”  

One option that the CEJC proposes is the community school model. According to the National Education Association, community schools are public schools that provide services that fit each neighborhood’s needs, created and run by the people who know the children best. 

“The community school approach is an evidence-based model for school transformation that organizes community resources around schools, deeply engages families, provides wraparound services and supports, and expands learning opportunities,” McIntyre said.  “The district should be focused on expanding the transformative community school approach rather than closing schools.”

Community schools have proven effective for other districts, including those in Ohio. Twenty years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) was in a similar situation that CCS is in now: a declining student enrollment spanning decades with numerous buildings below capacity. Instead of closing schools, Cincinnati opted to turn to the community school model. 

At the time, CPS had a student population of 45,000 with a projected population of 22,000 by 2010. CPS passed a policy in 2001 that turned all 65 schools into community schools. Since then, the school district has seen an improvement in student performance. The achievement gap between Black and white students closed by 10 percent, and the graduation rate significantly improved. CPS was also able to retain its student population. The current enrollment of 36,000 students is much higher than was anticipated more than 20 years ago.

“We’ve reached a fork in the road for Columbus City Schools,” McIntyre said. “There are two paths forward for our school board members: ‘business as usual’ or transformation. Mass school closings and managing the district’s decline, or restoring community trust, building support around a transformational vision for the future and growing enrollment.”

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