Traditionally, the youngest kids in cities have just had to go a few blocks to get to school, while big brothers and sisters might be only a quick bus ride away. But what happens when families receive news that their neighborhood school is shutting its doors or being phased out? For years, schools have been closing in the neighborhoods where many Black and Hispanic families live, and these school closures have set off pitched political battles, underminied neighborhood stability, and set parents on a desperate search for another school to call home.

The world has seen the effects of school closures on student mental health and academic achievement as a result of temporary closures in the pandemic. But American cities are facing the reality of permanent school closures, thanks to budget cuts, declining enrollment, and at some, poor academic outcomes. Parents in Chicago, Oakland, New York, Baltimore, Detroit, and other cities have already faced closure of multiple neighborhood schools. With enrollment falling in many areas, families bracing for more school closures are asking: Why is this happening? Where is my child going to get their education? And what can I do?

Early signs of school closures

Schools do not shut down without warning. Parents should be on the lookout for some of the typical signs that a school might be on the chopping block as much as three years before an announcement. These include weak student achievement (low graduation rates or standardized test scores), steadily declining enrollment, news that the district’s budget is in the red, and occasionally, the possible demolition of an outdated or unsafe school building. Charter schools can also close if their charters are revoked, which typically happens because of financial mismanagement.

For traditional public schools, districts will hold community meetings about the decision to close a school. Parents should always attend these, and make sure the district also has a plan to communicate with parents who are unable to attend. “The role of a parent can be going to neighborhood councils and tapping into local governments,” says Zani Dalili-Ortique, a Washington, DC educator at The Riverseed School. In California, for instance, districts have to establish a District Advisory Committee, which gives a timeline for the closing and must include community voices. That gives parents the opportunity to let authorities know that local schools can also be important spaces for kinship, generational legacy, and community activities in many Black and Hispanic communities.

“My daughters go to school for their education, but they also have their meals and other services provided. Families really need those resources that are close to them,” adds Dalili. And because schools don’t close overnight, says Bruce Fuller, UC Berkeley Professor of Education and Public Policy and author of When Schools Work, “That gives parents time to organize with other parents and create connections with nonprofits that are pro-equity and align with the communities’ mission.”

Fight or flight: Navigating the school closure process

Schools either close at the end of the school year, or they’re phased out, with students allowed to stay until they reach the school’s highest grade, while no new students are admitted.

Phasing out can seem attractive because it gives families time to plan transitional steps. But it can also hurt student performance. Researchers looking at the effects of school closures on students in Chicago between 2001 and 2006 found that, “during [the] announcement year, reading achievement for students in schools slated for closing was about one-and-a half months of learning below the expected level, and math achievement was more than half a month blow the expected level.” Researchers attributed this to the decline in motivation and morale that happened when teachers and students knew their school would soon close for good.

On the other hand, students who voluntarily left schools facing closure performed better. The CPS study suggested that one year after students left schools slated for closing, these displaced students’ reading and math levels had returned to their expected level.

The takeaway: Parents can play an important role by transferring their child to a new school at the earliest sign that the present school might shut down. The sooner students enter a new school, the less likely it is that their academics will suffer.

At the community level, it might be unsettling to fight a school closing while your child is already enrolled somewhere else. This will be a time when you have to balance helping your own while also helping your community.

That can be a big challenge in Black neighborhoods. Stanford University research has shown that school closures can also lead to gentrification. The study found that when schools remained open in Black neighborhoods, those areas were less likely to gentrify, as more affluent new families would be unwilling to school their children there. Predominantly Black schools in cities effectively can act as a barrier to gentrification, while closing them makes gentrification more likely.

Where does my child go after the school shuts down?

School districts will either select a new school for your student or give you a (usually limited) choice of schools. The latter model tends to lead to more community buy-in for school closings, and eases the transition for families. But whether a new school is the district choice or a family choice, parents should research its academics, attendance, building safety, enrichment opportunities – and especially how far it is from home.

In the Chicago wave of school closings from 2000 to 2013, some students were reassigned to schools as far as 3.5 miles from their homes, making things hard for many families. But in the end, it also made it hard for then-Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. The botched school closures were widely considered a big factor in his declining support when it came to the mayoral election two years later.

The risk of ending up at a worse school or dropping out

Historically, school transfers have left other public schools overcrowded with emotional and scared students from school closures, especially within low-income communities of color. Moreover, parents need to keep in mind that a district could reassign their child to a school that is academically weak or otherwise undesirable. In fact, a University of Chicago study of 2001-2008 school closings in that city found that some schools receiving students from previously closed schools were themselves later closed for underutilization or academic reasons.

Sadly, some high schoolers will just leave when forced to change schools. The graduation rate declined by 10% after a wave of Milwaukee school closings, for instance. Many dropouts earn less than graduates and are also at higher risk for involvement in the criminal justice system. “If we do not identify a solution that provides stable and efficient schools that all students have access to, we run the risk of failing the most vulnerable members of our society,” writes Dalili-Ortique.

Supporting your child during a school closure

More often than not, the announcement that a neighborhood school is closing comes with the district saying, optimistically, that the closure will create a chance for students to attend better schools. Many parents have learned to be skeptical of these claims – so much so that in Oakland, CA, parents in 2022 occupied a school slated to close and ran their own community programs for months. Here are some other steps to take when faced with a school closing in your neighborhood.

  1. Attend all meetings about proposed school closings!
  2. Begin working with other parents and community groups to ensure the best outcome for your child and your community, whether or not the school is ultimately closed. Groups have more influence than individuals.
  3. Pay close attention to how the district will handle the reassignment process, and do the research to make an informed choice about your child’s next school.
  4. If you can move your child quickly to a school you like, do so. It’s generally better for students to change schools sooner rather than later.
  5. Pay close attention to what district officials say about transportation options to any new school they have selected for your child.
  6. When your child changes schools, make sure all school records are transferred to the new one.
  7. Note what the plans are for the old school building. Empty school buildings can become a magnet for unsavory and illegal activities – or a sign that the neighborhood might gentrify.

Being assigned to a new school can be painful and disruptive for families. Older children can lose friends and established routines. But they may have less trouble coping than younger kids. For the youngsters, it’s important to comfort them and remind them that this is a challenging transition for the whole family. It’s also a good idea to make sure young kids spend time with friends and peers who are facing the same situation or have done so recently.Yes, one door is closing. But make sure your child is ready when a new one opens.