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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Population Loss, Economy Drive Midwest School Closings

Story first reported from USA Today

The Midwest has lost more than 2,100 public schools in recent years as school districts hammered by population loss scrambled to shift students and save money.

From 2006-07 through 2010-11, the region saw a net loss of 2,110 K-12 schools, according to a USA TODAY analysis of U.S. Department of Education data. The rest of the nation had a net gain of 965, largely from growth in the West.

The closings — which often see students moved to other buildings in a district — can affect home prices and businesses and often take an emotional toll on residents.

"It's like losing the soul of the community," said Terry Ryan, vice president for Ohio Programs & Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a public policy center focused on education. "It's a painful experience."

The Midwest has been losing schools for some time, but the trend has accelerated in the past decade, largely because of economic issues, Ryan said.

The analysis examined the operational status of more than 100,000 schools each year to identify those flagged as closed. It found:

•Much of the Midwest's school loss came in three states: Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio. There, the number of schools fell by 1,694.

•The schools that closed during the five years studied had served nearly 1.5 million students. Buildings marked as closed in 2010-11 alone served 351,600 students.

•The faster-growing regions of the West and South saw gains. California, Texas and Arizona had a total net gain of 1,133 schools.

School enrollment — and the pressure to open or close schools — follows larger demographic shifts.

In the Midwest, the number of people younger than 18 fell by more than 519,000, or 3%, from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

In Ohio, the Warren City School District shrank its 14 schools to five in two years, closing all elementary and middle schools and consolidating into four K-8 schools and a high school.

"We lost a lot of jobs here," said Larry Simpson, president of the Warren Community PTA. "The steel industry was one of the main employers in Warren. Not anymore."

In Jewell County, Kan., two districts merged in 2006 and later took in students from a third district that closed in 2009. The moves left five buildings empty. One school had gone from an enrollment of 195 a decade ago to 95 in 2008.

"The reality is we didn't have enough students to fill the buildings," said Darrell Bohnert, president of the Jewell City Council.

People used to come into the city for school events, but with less traffic, the lone gas station in town has suffered and a coffee shop closed.

"Our patrons are loyal, so we still do pretty good business, but we don't see the fuel sales we did from when the schools were here," said Jeff Williams, a Randall Coop gas station employee.

Major cities aren't exempt. In Detroit, the district has closed more than 100 schools in recent years.

When it closed in 2007, Mackenzie High School was nearly 80 years old and housed more than 1,000 students, down from nearly 5,000 in the 1950s. One of its best-known alums is NFL halfback Jerome Bettis, who retired after winning a Super Bowl in his hometown and serves the community with his non-profit group, The Bus Stops Here Foundation. "You didn't understand why a school with so much history was closing," Bettis said.

Bettis attended the ribbon-cutting of a new pre-K-8 school that will open in the fall on the old campus of his high school. "It's obviously not the same as it was, but it was great to see that some of the legacy will still be there," Bettis said.

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