Hang On to Those Buildings

Last month, I asked “What do you do when elementary school population is shrinking, the budget is tight and schools have empty seats and empty rooms?” Thirty-five years ago, school districts answered by selling buildings. Later, when population rose again and school space was no longer available, they regretted it.

To avoid that, I suggested that districts consider ways to operate their small schools cost effectively. Alternatively, they might want to add grades, invite community services into the schools or look for compatible tenants who might lease space or an entire school, keeping it open and active and available for future reclamation. Each solution, it seems to me, is better than closing and selling a school.

How does one operate a small school in a cost-effective manner? Here are some ideas:

Institute Staffing Flexibility — instead of forming separate classes at each grade, put 18 to 22 students together in multi-grade classrooms. Non-graded primaries might group five, six and even seven year olds in a single class. I spent two years in a third/fourth grade class taught by a single teacher. It worked. I had the same teacher for two years (now we call that looping), fourth grade students helped third graders at times and had the advantage of reviewing the first year’s work, at others.

Schedule Specialists — such as music, art, library and physical education teachers so that they are in a small school full days and do not overlap. That way a special teacher is always in the school, providing extra help and break time for teachers.

Does Every Small School Need a Principal? When I visit an elementary school and ask to meet the person who runs the building, I am brought to the school secretary. She knows everybody and where they are, has answers to all parent and student questions, hugs the little ones when they need it, helps teachers with material preparation, watches the door and otherwise keeps the building moving. It may be that a small school does not need a full-time principal, but rather a person who comes to the school to provide leadership, assess personnel and otherwise carry out the professional jobs of a principal in more than one building.

You may not like these particular ideas, but small schools are expensive to run only when they are run like big schools. The key is to break away from the large school mindset and organize things just a little differently.

If running a small school is not acceptable, try these approaches:

Add Grades to the elementary school. That can have some educational advantages. Most professionals think fifth grade students belong in elementary school and many believe that sixth-graders, too, would be better off in an elementary school environment. Many districts run K-8 schools in the belief that young teenagers, too, would be better off in a building staffed by teachers they have known throughout their school years. If there is room in elementary schools, consider expanding the grades housed there to keep those schools up and running economically.

Invite Community Programs to Use Space. Moving additional grades into the elementary schools may result in empty or partially empty middle schools. If you simply do not have enough students to keep all of your buildings relatively full, the next step may be to seek compatible community programs to use space within your schools.

Senior centers are an obvious choice. Seniors can use classrooms for their activities. Arrangements might also be made to use the library, art room, music room, gymnasium, performance area and cafeteria when students are not there. A bonus: many seniors would relish the opportunity to interact with children as mentors, readers or pseudo-grandparents.

At the other end of the age-bracket, available school space could house early education centers ranging from pre-schools run by the district to municipal or private pre-schools that could rent space. The school health office might become a community health clinic. Adult education and job training programs could be offered in school facilities.

Many community colleges lack space. Perhaps a local college would rent space in a school (or rent a whole building) to serve as an adjunct campus.

There are many potential tenants for available school space (including individuals who need office space outside their homes). The idea is to hang on to your buildings and find potential uses that will keep them open and running now and, in the long or short run, available for you to reclaim when student enrollment demands it.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."