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Columbus Schools Confront Drop In Enrollment

This week WOSU News takes its microphones and notebooks to school. In recent years, Columbus Public Schools and other big-city districts have been forced to confront declining enrollments, growing poverty, and changes in federal education policies. Superintendent Gene Harris outlined the big picture at a public hearing earlier this year. "We still have 56,000 students in 130 school buildings." But those figures represent a decline of 10,000 thousand students since 1999 and the downward trend is projected to continue next fall. W-O-S-U's Mandie Trimble and Tom Borgerding today begin a week-long series of reports. Fewer Students, Higher Stakes: The stories behind declining enrollments in the Columbus Public Schools.

As the school year draws to a close this spring, students and parents at two elementary schools prepare to say good-bye to their buildings.

I'm Mandie Trimble. Medary Elementary on Medary Avenue and Linden Park Alternative on Myrtle Avenue will be shuttered in about two weeks.

In a bid to keep a balance between dropping enrollments and building capacity, the Board of Education voted in January to close the two schools and re-assign more than 300 students. The decision came despite pleas from parents like Di Benedetti. "And Linden Park has a legacy and a history of 31 years in that neighborhood. Its like a parenting kind of thing." Says Benedetti.

The closings of Linden Park Alternative and Medary are the latest in a string of school closings. Since 2003, The district has closed 18 school buildings. Superintendent Gene Harris said earlier this year that district officials have little choice but to close schools when it counts fewer students each fall. "We had to look at the demographics of the district, meaning are there more students, have there been enrollment shifts from one side of town to the other, have there been declines in buildings. We have to do that to have the appropriate number of schools open based on student enrollment." Says Harris.

Like other urban school districts in Ohio, Columbus has a daunting task of keeping the right number of schools open to match enrolmment. Last October,for example, when official enrollment counts were done, Columbus had lost more than 3-thousand students compared to the year before. That's equivalent of two large high schools. Columbus loses many of its students to publicly-funded, privately operated charter schools. The availability of tuition vouchers from the state legislature also has had the effect of drawing students away from Columbus Public schools. While charters and vouchers are the biggest and most immediate challenge facing the schools, district enrollment has been roiled through the last half-century by judicial, legislative, and social changes.

Two factors combined to cause the student exodus from Columbus Public Schools. Court-ordered desegregation and rapid growth away from the central city. In 1954, the U-S supreme Court ruled in Brown versus Board of Education that "separate but equal" schools for blacks and whites was unconstitutional. The ruling planted the seed for desegregation Columbus and in school districts across the country.

Two years later, in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation to build the interstate highway system and I-70 and I-71 quickly took shape and sliced through established city neighborhoods.

The new freeways helped accelerate the city's geographic and population growth. City leaders adopted aggressive annexation policies, tripling the size of the city in less than 20 years. New housing sprouted to the east, west, and especially to the north. With new subdivisions, Eastland, Westland and Northland Malls soon began to draw big crowds. Les Wexner, founder of The Limited, and Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's, were young entrepreneurs just starting to build their businesses.

But even as annexations helped the city grow geographically, state law denied Columbus schools additional students and tax revenues. Students in some newly annexed areas were allowed to stay in their suburban school districts. Social and economic fissures began to surface. Ohio State University professor and Director of the Kirwan Institute, John Powell, says Columbus shared some trends with other urban school districts in Ohio. "Economic segregation and racial segregation at the urban core was a pattern that ran through all of the school districts." Says Powell.

By the late 1970s, it would take a federal court order to racially desegregate Columbus Public schools. Suburban districts would attract more middle class families and the younger members of the post-war baby boom would graduate. Columbus school enrollment would drop sharply and board decisions on school closings and re-drawn attendance areas would draw the ire of parents and residents of the city's older neighborhoods.

In Linden, longtime resident George Poindexter has kept a close eye on school board decisions and federal education policy and their effects on Linden area schools. "I am 59 years old, I've seen Lester Maddox, George Wallace, and Bull Connor stop my people from going to school. In 1964, Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1964 which allowed us to have a better education. George Bush came along in 2001 with the 'No Child Left Behind Act,' took our monies and gave it to private entities. Now I see the same thing this school district is doing, taking our children and moving them like cattle.busing. Why didn't you bus people from the suburbs to our schools. I am tired of y'all taking it out on our children." Says Poindexter.

For Tom Borgerding, I'm Mandie Trimble, WOSU News.