James Gibbs remembers when the 522-student-capacity Dunbar Elementary School in St. Louis’ JeffVanderLou neighborhood could barely contain all his classmates.
“It was maxed; it was capacity,” said Gibbs, who’s now 62 years old. “If it didn’t overflow, it was 500.”
That was in the early 1970s when St. Louis Public Schools educated 111,000 students. Last fall, 155 registered at Dunbar, filling just 30% of the available classroom space. The district’s entire enrollment has fallen to 21,500, including 2,000 pre-schoolers.
SLPS has closed dozens of schools to match its rapidly shrinking enrollment. Officials are preparing another round of building closures this winter, though no number has been decided or schools named. Consolidation, the district argues, will cut costs and allow the school system to provide more programs and social support resources to students who desperately need them.
Gibbs knows why Dunbar’s enrollment has decreased so much. There used to be homes all around the school where now there are vacant lots.
“The area is already in dire need, so why close one more school?” said Gibbs, who still lives on the city’s north side and is involved in a "Save Dunbar" campaign. If the school does close, “the JeffVanderLou would probably cease to exist.”
Dunbar is across the street from Vashon High School (itself only one-third full) and down the street from a St. Louis Community College center, a trifecta of education Gibbs said should not be broken. Gibbs also brought up his own nostalgia several times in his argument for why Dunbar’s doors should stay open.
Nostalgia is a big barrier Superintendent Kelvin Adams will have to overcome in his argument to families for why more schools should close. Schools often remain one of the last community resources in low-income urban neighborhoods blighted by decades of vacancy.
Dunbar nearly closed a year ago before Adams gave it and three other schools a last-minute stay after a plea from community members and elected officials.
Across the city, SLPS is only using 56% of the room in its 68 buildings. A few schools — early childhood centers, gifted programs and high-performing schools, all on the south side — are slightly over-enrolled.
But others are severely underfilled. Northwest Academy of Law, another school that was almost shuttered last year, has just 192 students in a building that could accommodate a thousand. There are 254 students inside the historic Sumner High School in the Ville. Sumner, the first high school in the West for African Americans, has room for 960 students.
Seventeen schools have been closed during Adams’ 12-year tenure as superintendent, including 11 in 2010. Most recently, two were closed in 2016.
Educating kids in buildings that are under-enrolled is more expensive than running them at capacity. For example, a student at Dunbar costs the district $11,384 per year, according to state education department figures. At the district’s largest elementary school, Gateway Elementary, the cost for each of its 577 students is $8,836.
“If we have buildings that are not fully being utilized, we are spending dollars in ways that we could better spend dollars for programs that could support students across the entire district,” Adams said.
That could mean more Advanced Placement courses, more athletic and club offerings, as well as nurses, librarians and social workers in every school, every day, Adams said. Supporting fewer buildings will also reduce administrative overhead and transportation costs, he said.
A school desegregation program began busing thousands of black St. Louis children to schools in St. Louis County with higher percentages of white students in 1983. In the early 2000s, independent charter schools began siphoning off students from SLPS. They now educate about one-third of public school students in St. Louis. But SLPS’ falling student population better mirrors St. Louis as a whole. More than 900,000 people used to live in the city. Barely 303,000 do today.
Empty schools share blocks in St. Louis neighborhoods with vacant lots and abandoned buildings. Former schools in more popular, wealthier neighborhoods have been sold and redeveloped, usually as apartments, with developers drawn to the natural light and historic architecture of the century-old structures. Five former SLPS schools are being used for charters.
Schools in impoverished sections of the city are harder to sell or redevelop. Seventeen properties remain on the districts’ surplus list, at a bargain sale price to anyone willing to pour millions into repairs and renovations.
“Most if not all of them have been severely looted and vandalized, so the conditions are not optimal for someone to just move in and turn the lights on,” said Walker Gaffney, SLPS’s real estate director.
After Adams retracted his plan to shutter four schools last January, he tasked them with increasing their enrollment. Community members in JVL including Gibbs organized a “Save Dunbar” campaign, lobbying district officials, drumming up support for the school and meeting with members of the school board. Dunbar added just three students.
Enrollment was not the sole decider of whether to close in the past. Adams said building conditions, academic performance and demographics or planned development of the neighborhood can also be considered.
The district will hold a series of community meetings starting in late February to share data with parents and lay out its case for closing buildings.
- Saturday, Feb. 29; 10 a.m.-noon at Clyde C. Miller Career Academy
- Tuesday, March 3; 6-8 p.m. at Vashon High School
- Wednesday, March 4; 6-8 p.m. at Metro High School
- Saturday, March 7; 10 a.m.-noon at Carnahan High School
- Wednesday, March 11; 6-8 p.m. at Soldan High School
- Thursday, March 12; 6-8p.m. at Roosevelt High School
A vote on school closures could happen in mid-April. Those closures would likely be effective for the 2020-21 academic year.
“A school is a living thing when it’s in use, it’s filled with activity and people and life,” said Sally Topping, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 420, SLPS’ teachers union. “And when you see it shut down, it’s like something died.”
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