Cities face crisis as fewer kids enroll and schools shrink
On a recent morning inside Chalmers School of Excellence on Chicago’s West Side, five preschool and kindergarten students finished up drawings. Four staffers, including a teacher and a tutor, chatted with them about colors and shapes. The summer program offers the kind of one-on-one support parents love. But behind the scenes, Principal Romian Crockett worries the school is becoming precariously small.
The number of small schools like Chalmers is growing in many American cities as public school enrollment declines. More than one in five New York City elementary schools had fewer than 300 students last school year. In Los Angeles, that figure was over one in four. In Chicago it has grown to nearly one in three, and in Boston it’s approaching one in two…
Most of these schools were not originally designed to be small, and educators worry coming years will bring tighter budgets even as schools are recovering from the pandemic’s disruption. “When you lose kids, you lose resources,” said Crockett, the Chalmers principal. “That impacts your ability to serve kids with very high needs.”
Declining birthrates has to be a big part of this. Recall the post war baby boom when large families with four or more children were common. Now they are rare.
Remember when kids in the neighborhood played in the streets. Now their parents make play dates. And games and electronics keep them isolated and indoors. Both parents working has to make a big difference too.
This has been happening for years, now. Here’s a piece from a decade ago, pointing out that large dense cities even then had been losing their school age children for a while:
.Over the past two decades, the percentage of families that have children has fallen in most of the country, but nowhere more dramatically than in our largest, densest urban areas. In cities with populations greater than 500,000, the population of children aged 14 and younger actually declined between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. Census data, with New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit experiencing the largest numerical drop. Many urban school districts—such as Chicago, which has 145,000 fewer school-age children than it had a decade ago—have seen enrollments plummet and are busily closing schools. The 14-and-younger population increased in only about one-third of all census-designated places, with the greatest rate of growth occurring in smaller urban areas with fewer than 250,000 residents.
A lot of it is due to housing costs. You need space to raise kids, and especially larger families - and that space is much more expensive in dense metros than suburbs and exurbs (or modern car-oriented metros). But as Kotkin (who is very much against “new urbanist” approaches, if it’s not obvious from the article) also points out that cities have become much more oriented towards younger “creative class” or FIRE or tech professionals than folks who are in the child-rearing time of their lives. You get a feedback loop: the city gets expensive for anyone but the single and childless, and so the businesses and institutions and housing stock and the like start to cater more to the single and childless.
We have been putting our nation at educational risk since 1981.