SALT LAKE CITY — So far this year, local school boards from Salt Lake County to Ogden have voted to close three Title I elementary schools and the closure of a fourth school in Salt Lake City has been recommended by a school district committee.
Academic research suggest the effects of school closures are a mixed bag, but in every case the impacts are deeply personal.
"Closing schools means more than barricading the doors. The big question is, what happens next and what happens to the people? That’s what education is all about, the people. What will it mean for them?" said Andrea Rorrer, associate dean of the University of Utah’s College of Education.
Following Granite School Board's vote in January to close Oquirrh Hills Elementary School in Kearns at the end of the school year, Linda Hansen addressed members of the State School Board about the decision.
"I just want to say publicly, that’s very, very difficult on a community. It’s just so hard to lose your neighborhood school," said Hansen, who represents the area on the Utah State Board of Education.
In each of the three instances, school administrators vowed to work closely with affected students to help them transition to different schools next fall.
Following the Ogden School District board's vote to close Gramercy Elementary late last week, Superintendent Rich Nye acknowledged the closure "will undoubtedly be a source of grief for many.
"I personally assure the Gramercy community that the Ogden School District stands ready to provide support to assist in a smooth transition to another learning community.”
Rorrer, who is also director of the U.'s Education Policy Center, said aside from assurances, school communities need specific plans as to what comes next.
"It’s one thing to say a student’s records will be transferred to a new school. It’s another to say, 'Will they feel safe and comfortable at that school? Will they be welcome? How will they be integrated? What is the integration plan for students who come from another school?'" Rorrer said.
In many low-income neighborhoods, schools serve as community centers.
When the Davis Board of Education voted earlier this month to close Washington Elementary School in Bountiful, school community council Chairman Mitch Davis explained that many families in the neighborhood heavily rely on its school nutrition programs and food pantry. He specifically urged the school board to continue to offer a summer foods program there after the school closes in May.
Shamory Kojima, whose daughter and nephew attend the school, raced to get to the school board meeting after he got off work, but he was too late for the school board vote.
Kojima said he would have told the board that he has no car so he doesn't know how his children will get to their new school. They're able to walk to school now.
The school board vote "changed my life," he said.
According to the Urban Institute, research shows changing schools can negatively affect students, although there is also evidence that moving to a better performing school can be positive.
Urban researchers Megan Gallagher and Amanda Gold analyzed school and census data to track which schools were open one fall and closed the next. They found that every year, about 2 percent of schools that close their doors for the summer never reopen, affecting more than 200,000 students annually. The majority are in suburban areas.
They also found that in urban and suburban areas, closures disproportionately affect poor or black students.
The soon-to-be closed Utah schools — Oquirrh Hills, Washington and Gramercy elementaries — share some similar characteristics.
Each is a Title I schools with declining enrollment. Title I schools have large concentrations of low-income students. The schools receive federal funding intended to help students meet educational goals.
All are housed in older school buildings. A vast majority of students who attend the three schools are economically disadvantaged, and students of color outnumber Caucasian peers, according to the State School Board's most recent school report cards. English language learners comprise about a third of all students at Oquirrh Hills and Gramercy.
Their academic performances differ somewhat. Washington Elementary's last state report card showed it was making typical progress in achievement, exemplary progress in academic growth and typical progress among English language learners.
Gramercy's progress in achievement and academic growth were developing, and it was making typical progress among English language learners, according to the state report card.
Oquirrh Hills had been under school turnaround for the past three years and did not make enough progress to exit the program. Turnaround schools have scored in the lowest 3 percent of student achievement statewide according to end-of-year tests. Those schools receive state grants and assistance from experts who work with the school to improve achievement.
The district plans to redraw school boundaries in the surrounding area and send Oquirrh Hills students to nearby elementary schools depending on the location of their residences.
Research published in the Journal of Urban Economics in 2011 examined school closures in an unnamed midsized urban school district.
Researchers determined "the transition to new schools can have an adverse effect on attendance and achievement gains for students from closed schools."
However, "these effects can be minimized when students move to higher-performing schools."
The negative effect on attendance appears to dissipate after the first year, "but the negative effect on achievement appears to persist "unless the students are transferred to substantially higher-performing schools."14 comments on this story
For students at schools that receive an influx of students from closed schools, "the analysis shows no detectable adverse effects on either the attendance or achievement," the research states.
In some respects, a school closure is "almost like a natural disaster occurring because the folks it’s happening to, most often, don’t expect it," Rorrer said.
"You might have an emergency kit in your car but really, you go day to day banking on the fact that you’re not going to need it."