Demand For Specialty High Schools Up As Others Face Closure

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Two Columbus City High Schools are under consideration for closure. Brookhaven High School (pictured) is one of them. If it closes, it would be the district's first high school closure since 1982. District officials say declining enrollment and a budget deficit are reasons for the possible closures.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)
Two Columbus City High Schools are under consideration for closure. Brookhaven High School (pictured) is one of them. If it closes, it would be the district's first high school closure since 1982. District officials say declining enrollment and a budget deficit are reasons for the possible closures.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)

For the first time in more than 30 years, Columbus City Schools has proposed closing high schools. The district faces a budget deficit and enrollment has been on the decline. But the growing popularity of high school specialization and school choice also play a role in the closure decisions.

The last time a Columbus City Schools high school closed the parents of today’s students were likely still in school themselves. It was 1982, just a few years after the district was ordered to desegregate. Enrollment was at about 70,000 students.

Over the past three decades, enrollment has dropped to 51,000, leaving a lot of empty chairs in the city’s schools. Carole Olshavsky leads the district’s capital improvements department.

“Most of our high schools are significantly under capacity,” she said.

Officials want to close Brookhaven and Independence High Schools. The schools report cards are dismal: Ds and Fs. And a third of the students assigned to Brookhaven and Independence choose to go someplace else, leaving both buildings about half full.

Some students choose to attend other Columbus public high schools. It’s called open enrollment and slots are decided by lottery.

And school choice advocates like Sarah Pechan Driver said open enrollment provides options for students looking for better schools

“There is a severe quality school desert for students K-12 in most Columbus neighborhoods, and it’s particularly stark in high school,” Pechan Driver said.

But some argue the process takes away top students from conventional neighborhood schools, especially the struggling ones.

School choice supporter Aaron Churchill, a data analyst at Fordham Institute in Columbus, acknowledged a downside.

“It leaves some schools with more vulnerable children,” he said. “And that we need to understand what those schools are and how they can improve and how they can change the kids’ lives who are there.”

But Churchill added there are many reasons why students leave poor performing schools, and some students transfer to other low performing schools.

But the district’s Olshavsky pointed to charter schools. She said they began siphoning off elementary kids about a decade ago. That forced the district to close 40 elementary and middle schools. Now that trend has carried over to high schools.

“That’s also why we haven’t looked at high schools before, there was just no reason to as long as they were maintaining a reasonable population until this kind of negative bubble hit,” Olshavsky said.

The nature of a public high school is changing.

Only three Columbus high schools received As or Bs on state report cards. And those three are specialized high schools: a STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; a baccalaureate school with rigorous honors classes; and a college-prep school.

Those kinds of high schools are in high demand.

Columbus Schools superintendent Dan Good said the neighborhood high school will remain essential, but he expects more conventional schools will offer specialties.

“Now we’re looking at additional pathways such as engineering at West High School. We’re looking at logistics at South High School. We’re looking at allied health at East High School.”

The school board could decide in a few weeks whether to close Brookhaven and Independence High Schools. And Olshavsky said a third high school could close if enrollment declines further.

“But on the other hand, there’s opportunities for neighborhoods to rally around their high schools and find ways to bring the population back to it,” she said. “If 50 percent of kids are opting out of a school, let’s find out why and try to get them back in their neighborhood because it’s pretty devastating to a neighborhood to lose a high school like that.”

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