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How shuttering schools can speed up gentrification

Students and adults gather outside a school district building.
Students, teachers and parents demonstrate Feb. 1 outside Oakland Unified School District offices to protest potential school closures.
(Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle)

This is the April 11, 2022, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

Public school districts across California have been facing plummeting enrollment for five years, a trend spurred by pandemic struggles, falling birth rates, out-of-state migration, among other factors.

Because funding for California public schools is based on student attendance, districts may soon be facing big budget shortfalls, if they aren’t already — although legislative discussions are underway to possibly ease the hit. One way districts are addressing this problem, however, is by shuttering schools with dwindling student enrollment. In February, Oakland school board members voted to close seven of the city’s public schools by 2024. Some L.A. Unified schools also face uncertain futures.

There’s been intense pushback from parents, students and teachers in Oakland, who argue that closures will harm communities that have already faced decades of disinvestment. “You’re pushing out Black and brown students that deserve to be in their schools,” an Oakland Unified student testified at a school board meeting in February. “We’re still in a pandemic, which is hard enough to navigate. But pushing these kids and families into positions that not many can adjust to is not OK. Students’ mental health matters. It matters more than money. Prioritize these relationships and connections that make them feel safe, that make them feel like they belong.”

I was surprised to learn that even though closing schools is a common response to under-enrollment, very little is known about the effects of school closures on nearby neighborhoods, which according to scholars are disproportionately low-income and Black.

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Researchers at Stanford set out to fill that gap. They found that school closures increased gentrification, but only in Black neighborhoods.

The study, set to publish this spring, examined every urban school closure nationwide between 2000 and 2012. It revealed that closures increased the likelihood of property values rising and more affluent households moving into Black communities, from 19 to 27%. When school closures happened in white and Latinx communities, however, researchers found no evidence of the same pattern.

I spoke with the study’s co-authors, Francis Pearman and Danielle Marie Greene, about possible explanations for these findings.

Affluent people moving into a previously disinvested neighborhood generally consider public schools with mostly white or Latinx students an asset, Pearman told me. Yet they’re more likely to have negative associations with schools that serve large numbers of Black students. “When it comes to Black neighborhoods, affluent people do mind the neighborhood school,” Pearman said of the study findings. “If you close it, it increases the likelihood that the neighborhood will be seen as a potential destination.”

On the other hand, when Black schools in these neighborhoods stay open, they may act as a safeguard against gentrification. “This is partly due to the fact that white, affluent households are unlikely to enroll their children at majority Black schools, regardless of their quality,” Pearman said.

Oakland school board member Mike Hutchinson, whose 2020 election campaign revolved around ending school closures and financial mismanagement, had a blunt reaction to these findings. "[The researchers] might not use the words racism or white supremacy,” he said, “but what they describe is the definition of white supremacy ideology and anti-Black racism.”

Gentrification can also contribute to declining school enrollment, according to a 2019 study by Pearman. That’s because when affluent people move into gentrifying neighborhoods, they often opt to send their kids to private or charter schools. And if the local school then closes due to under-enrollment, gentrification may intensify. It’s a cyclical process, Pearman explained.

The number of school closures in cities across the U.S. has steadily grown since the early 2000s, when No Child Left Behind legislation enabled districts to shut down or merge schools if they weren’t meeting certain standards, including enrollment, standardized test score performance and building conditions. In 2013 alone, Chicago shuttered 47 elementary schools. Other cities, like Detroit and Philadelphia, followed suit, closing over 50 schools in the following years. Low-income and Black students were the most likely to have their schools closed, research shows.

“In a lot of these neighborhoods, schools are the last institutions standing. Grocery stores, parks, churches may be gone, and schools become the community’s backbone,” said Noli Brazil, a community and regional development professor at UC Davis. “Closing schools takes away their last thread of dignity.”

When community organizers speak out against school closures, gentrification is not often named explicitly. Opponents typically point out the impact on students’ education, like longer travel times to and from school and larger class sizes. But it’s all related, Hutchinson said.

“Closures are only faced by certain communities, and these are the same communities where people are seeing their rent prices explode, where landlords are no longer taking Section 8,” he told me, referring to the federal housing voucher program. “All of these things are in interplay with each other.” This is especially true in Oakland, which was 47% Black in 1980. Now it’s around 23% Black, according to the U.S. Census, a demographic shift fueled by the housing affordability crisis and the displacement of longtime residents.

“Housing inequity is connected to racial inequity, which is connected to schooling inequity,” Greene said. “These are not things we can easily pull apart like a Twizzler.”

Jazmin Garcia, an organizer for the member-led, statewide community organization ACCE Institute, has made the same connections between the changing landscape of communities and the threat of school closures in L.A. Unified, which since 2000 has seen a 40% drop in student enrollment.

Garcia helped organize parents and teachers against the potential closure of Trinity Street Elementary School in South L.A., a majority-Latinx school. “We’re seeing developers come in and pushing Black and brown families out. Many of our members with kids at Trinity are also applying for rent relief,” she said. “Whether or not working-class folks of color know that closures are tied to their displacement, they feel it. They’re living it.”

Brazil noted that school closures could hypothetically lead to positive outcomes for students if districts established an organized, transparent process that ensures students will be enrolled in a better-performing school, and engaged with the communities well in advance of the closures. But that is not often the case. In fact, students are more likely to be moved to another under-resourced school after a closure, Pearman said.

Pearman noted that school-closure decisions tend to be made through a “race-neutral lens.” The potential impact on the fabric of communities is rarely discussed. And even though these plans are approved with the expressed intention of improving opportunities for disadvantaged children, closures may actually contribute to the disintegration of their neighborhoods.

“Everyone wants to be doing something on behalf of Black and brown students,” Greene said. “But so far, it feels like we’ve been making those decisions on their behalf without fully understanding the actual consequences.”

Just out this morning, state reports large K-12 enrollment drops, & more

California public school enrollment has dropped for the fifth year in a row, a decline of 110,000 students as K-12 schools struggle against pandemic disruptions and a shrinking population of school-age children, among other factors. Urban school districts led the way in the drop. Read more.

Arizona State University has been steadily targeting California, the No. 1 source of ASU’s out-of-state students, for years. The university (one of the largest in the U.S.) has planted its first flag in the heart of downtown L.A. with a high-profile, multimillion-dollar takeover of the landmark Herald Examiner Building. The upstart program is too tiny to measure now. But California public university leaders have taken note — and are watching whether ASU President Michael Crow’s alternative vision for higher education will be a trendsetting incubator launched in Los Angeles or a failed incursion into a neighboring state. Read more from my colleague, Teresa Watanabe.

The Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District board has voted to ban the teaching of critical race theory in its classrooms, ending months of contentious debate in the Orange County school district. The resolution also states “other similar frameworks” will not be used to guide teachings on race. Board President Carrie Buck, who opposed the ban, noted that teachers and students were largely against it. “This is the first time in the 12 years I’ve been here that I’ve had 105 students send me an email or call me or send me messages saying, ‘Don’t do this,’” said Buck. The resolution comes at a time when an increasing number of states have passed laws that ban or restrict the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools.

Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy met with two dozen high school students in San Diego this week, who spoke of how the pandemic has affected their lives and well-being. In December, Murthy issued an advisory that showed a growing number of young Americans are struggling with severe mental health challenges. Since the advisory’s release, Murthy has had discussions with youth across the U.S., which he said will help shape policies going forward.

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What else we’re reading this week

After the pandemic disrupted their high school educations, students are arriving at college unprepared. Professors are scrambling to fill learning gaps and fend off what they fear will be inequitable consequences. Hechinger Report and USA Today

Math scores of California’s average eighth-graders on standardized tests in 2021 were similar to the knowledge and skills of fifth-graders, raising doubts about whether traditional strategies like summer school and tutoring can succeed in making up such a huge gap in learning. EdSource

Many urban districts are still losing students a year after the nation’s schools experienced a historic decline in enrollment. Whether families withdrew to enroll their children in online charters, school them at home or fled to suburbs with more affordable housing, the pandemic has triggered population shifts that could change the makeup of U.S. school districts for years to come. The 74

If you can’t name Biden’s Education secretary, you probably aren’t alone. Miguel Cardona was seen as someone who could ease tensions after months of charged debate over school closures. As conservatives have angrily testified at school board meetings against mask mandates, race-related lessons and LGBTQ books, and liberals are pressing for student debt cancellation, critics say Cordona has been almost a non-factor. Politico

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