More Washington Communities May Face School Closures as Enrollment Declines

Following his third surgery last year, 8-year-old Rowan received an outpouring of support from his classmates at Olympia’s Boston Harbor Elementary School. Rowan’s parents appreciate the close-knit community that has been a source of comfort for their son, who has fibular hemimelia, a condition affecting his mobility.

However, the news of Boston Harbor Elementary potentially closing blindsided Rowan and his family. Olympia School District announced this possibility in the fall of last year, leaving them feeling caught off guard. Rowan’s parents, who are part of a group called OSD For All, are now actively working to prevent the closure.

The issue of school closures due to declining enrollment is not unique to Boston Harbor Elementary. Communities across Washington are facing similar challenges as student enrollment drops and district budgets shrink. State funding is directly tied to the number of students enrolled in public schools.

While the decision to close a school may seem like a practical solution, families like Rowan’s believe the long-term consequences outweigh the benefits. Their concerns extend beyond financial considerations.

Erin Mann, a preschool teacher whose students often continue on to Boston Harbor Elementary, highlights the strong generational ties to the school and the sense of pride associated with it. The next closest school in the district, Roosevelt Elementary School, is located in a different community, making it less appealing for many families.

A recent study conducted by the University of Washington’s education policy professor, Meredith Honig, revealed that historically, school closures are not common, making it difficult to gauge their impact. However, neighborhood schools are deeply ingrained in the fabric of many communities and serve as vital community centers.

While school closures often disproportionately affect lower-income and diverse areas, Boston Harbor Elementary stands as an exception due to its relative affluence. Nationally, Black and Hispanic students have borne the brunt of recent school closures.

Overall, the declining student enrollment in Washington’s K-12 education system, attributed to factors such as declining birth rates and pandemic-related disruptions, has led to funding challenges for districts, including Olympia School District. As federal COVID-19 relief funds run out, many districts face financial instability.

While there is consensus that education is Washington’s top priority, addressing the financial strain on districts with declining enrollment presents a difficult dilemma. School closures may become a necessary measure as districts face tightening budgets.

Vigil and other parents at Boston Harbor Elementary believe that the district has not fully considered the potential consequences of closing the school and fear that it may exacerbate the decline in enrollment. On the other hand, experts argue that spreading resources too thin across underutilized schools compromises the quality of education.

Georgetown University’s Marguerite Roza and University of Washington’s Meredith Honig emphasize the importance of transparency and open communication between districts, parents, and the wider community when considering school closures. The teacher union and advocates for educational transparency also stress the need for a collaborative and informative approach to prevent increased tension and anxiety.

Olympia School District has proposed consolidating two elementary schools, Madison and McKenny, as part of its plan for dealing with declining enrollment. However, the Vigil family remains staunchly opposed to any closures, expressing their desire to spare other families from going through the same experience.

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