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Breaking the Vise of Declining Enrollment

Declining enrollment is a painful challenge for school districts who face it—as districts lose students, they are caught in a vise between falling revenue and rising per-pupil costs. But this pain doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Instead, it can be a catalyst to redesign schools and districts, relentlessly aligning resources to a clear strategy and ultimately improving opportunities for students.

ERS CEO Karen Hawley Miles shared her ideas for how to break the vise of declining enrollment at an October event for the launch of the forthcoming book, Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck. Sponsored by AEI and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the book and event feature a wide range of voices from academia, media, government and non-profit organizations. A video of the event is available here.

Karen focused on three strategies for breaking the vise of declining enrollment:

  • Redesign school delivery model to accelerate learning.
  • Transform the portfolio of schools by closing or reconfiguring schools.
  • Explore ways to increase revenue.

These strategies center around the idea that traditional ways of organizing resources (people, time, and money) in schools don’t effectively serve students. To help students reach higher standards, we need to break from the status quo of school design. In these redesigned schools, resources are shifted so that teachers have ample time to learn and work in teams facilitated by expert colleagues, and they have opportunities to grow in their work and to play different roles that leverage their knowledge and passion. Students are in different group sizes depending on the lesson, subject and instructional purpose throughout the day. Time is often extended and varies based on student need, subject and lesson purpose.

Subscale schools that are common in districts with declining enrollment can make it difficult to organize resources in these ways and will require leaders to make tough calls on necessary cuts while remaining transparent with stakeholders. But there are also opportunities to think differently about the problem. Declining enrollment doesn’t need to mean closing schools—it can also look like combining schools in different grade configurations and using the process as an opportunity to engage the community in defining their vision for schooling.

Hartford Public Schools worked with ERS to break the challenge of declining enrollment through innovative thinking and community engagement. Read their story here

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