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What happens when schools close? An Akron neighborhood shows one possibility

A woman stands in front of a boarded up building with crumbling brick behind her. Shge wears a shirt that says in part "Kenmore Youth." She smiles at the camera with a hand on one hip, the other hand clutching a water bottle and keys.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Tina Boyes, the Akron City Council member who represents the Kenmore neighborhood, stands outside of Kenmore High School, which was closed in 2017 and merged with another school outside the neighborhood. Boyes says Akron Public Schools' closure of schools in the neighborhood has hurt its vitality.

Kenmore Boulevard is quiet this morning. The commercial thoroughfare in Akron's Kenmore neighborhood — its second largest — is in the process of being reinvigorated as a music and arts hub after years of what local residents call disinvestment in the neighborhood.

Tina Boyes represents the Kenmore area on Akron City Council, and is a fifth-generation resident. She's also been involved with revitalization efforts in her former role with Better Kenmore Community Development Corporation.

She says the district’s closure of schools in the neighborhood has hurt its vitality. She came prepared with a print-out of a map of the neighborhood.

"So this map here, I mean, you can see from 1999 to 2003, our schools were cut in to a third almost," she said.

Akron council member Tina Boyes holding a map showing the loss of schools in the Kenmore neighborhood over the last two decades.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Akron council member Tina Boyes holding a map showing the loss of schools in the Kenmore neighborhood over the last two decades.

Up the hill, the former Kenmore High School sits dormant, doors boarded up, grass growing up between the cracks of the pavement. The school was closed in 2017 and merged with another outside the neighborhood, three miles away.

What happened in Kenmore is a microcosm of what’s happening or being considered across Ohio and across the country – school districts closing buildings, and communities coping with the impact.

How have school closures impacted the neighborhood?

Boyes explains that the neighborhood was once a thriving community, founded as its own city on the trolley line between Akron and Barberton. In the decades after schools were integrated, and as schools began to move toward open enrollment policies, Boyes says many white families left for the suburbs. Poverty, crime and drug addiction were on the rise for years, although positive signs have begun to emerge as neighborhood revitalization efforts have taken hold, including a drop in the overdose rate since the pandemic.

Boyes said it's a complicated series of factors that contributed to Kenmore's challenges, but she noted one reason parents left the neighborhood was because they perceived better education opportunities for their children were available elsewhere.

"So I think all of those things contributed to the lack of support for Kenmore schools and the migration outward, and thus that kind of chicken and egg situation of, 'Well, we can't we're not going to keep your schools open if you don't have students,'" she said.

Boyes says the schools in Kenmore served as anchor points in a community; she recalled going to school in the 1990s, when neighbors would keep an eye out on children as they walked to school. She says, now, many students aren't in walking distance of their school.

The school district says it bases its decisions to close schools on enrollment, which has declined as the city’s population has dropped. That’s led to 20 school closures over three decades, six in Kenmore alone. The district also blames the rise of EdChoice vouchers and families opting for suburban schools. Spokesperson Mark Williamson said there are fewer children being born in Akron, while the loss of industry has hurt the city's ability to attract new families.

"The Kenmore area was not targeted," he said in a statement. "Akron Public has adjusted its school footprint to the needs to student population within its boundaries."

The boarded-up side doors to Kenmore High School.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
The boarded-up side doors to Kenmore High School.

Kemp Boyd, the football coach for Garfield High School, which Kenmore High merged with, says Kenmore is a great example of how school districts shouldn’t approach closures and right-sizing. He lives right across from Smith School in Kenmore, which was closed about eight years ago.

"We were woken up through just gunshots because people would go over and have target practice at Smith School," Boyd said. "And so you keep these empty schools up and it's almost attracting negative behavior."

Vacant buildings and lots now dot the neighborhood where students once attended class. Two have caught fire, and most have been demolished. Boyd says disinvestment in the neighborhood isn’t the school district’s fault alone and added it’s a common theme in areas throughout the city that have large numbers of Black residents. (Kenmore is about one-fourth Black, according to U.S. Census data.)

"It's almost like those communities that are not thriving, instead of us collectively coming behind those communities," Boyd said. "It's almost like we leave those community to be desolate and almost say, 'Well, if you make it great, then great! But if not, we're going to invest more resources into the communities that are thriving.'"

Can schools be right-sized effectively?

Ohio State University Professor Vladimir Kogan, who studies education policy, says school closures should be based on what will serve students best. To him, that means preserving high-quality schools, regardless of the impact on the local community or their location.

"That is going to absolutely produce, probably, some racial disparities and some economic disparities," Kogan said. "But again, not because you're specifically singling out those neighborhoods. It's just a reflection of where the enrollment losses have been higher than in other places."

Akron Public Schools is still grappling with how to right-size the district and how best to allot its resources as enrollment continues to drop. The board voted to close or repurpose several buildings not in the Kenmore neighborhood last year, and engaged in the process of redistricting this year, shifting where students are enrolled.

District officials noted some buildings had less than 50% enrollment, which puts them at risk of falling under an Ohio law that seeks to put under-used public school buildings up for sale for use by charter schools. That could mean charter schools moving in to take even more students away from districts, worsening their enrollment problems, Kogan said.

Even after that though, Akron Public Schools still has roughly 45 schools, according to Kogan's analysis of data from schools across the country from the National Center for Education Statistics. That is more than basically any other school with enrollment similar to the district.

It's politically fraught to close buildings, considering the job losses that often come with it, but, Kogan said keeping underused buildings open is not a smart use of resources.

"Every dollar you spend to keep a half empty building open is a dollar that you're not spending improving the programing for everybody else," he said. "And there's really programing issues; if you think about a high school, there's definitely a minimum size that you need to be able to offer a rich curriculum, to be able to offer advanced courses."

Kogan said schools need to have a good land use plan to repurpose schools after they're no longer used, to cut down on blight.

A Kenmore resident holds a sign at an Akron Board of Education in July 2023, when the board was considering between two different options for rebuilding school buildings - either building a new school in Kenmore, or rebuilding North High School.
Kelly Krabill
Ideastream Public Media
A Kenmore resident holds a sign at an Akron Board of Education in July 2023, when the board was considering between two different options for rebuilding school buildings - either building a new school in Kenmore, or rebuilding North High School.

Meanwhile, decisions from the past continue to haunt both the district and the Kenmore neighborhood. As the district moved to close buildings over the last two decades, the district also received significant taxpayer support through an income tax increase to fund a program to rebuild most of the district's buildings. Kenmore did receive several building updates, but there wasn't enough money to fund a new high school.

Boyes notes Kenmore residents - who supported the tax increase - felt like a promise to them was broken; they felt it was just the latest example of the district ignoring them.

One decision last year encapsulated the district's struggle to balance community and student needs. The district needed to replace two aging school buildings, but only had enough remaining pandemic relief funds to do one project.

They could build a new elementary school over the abandoned Kenmore High School, serving as a home for the Miller South School for the Performing Arts (located close to the neighborhood) and Pfeiffer Elementary in Kenmore, which both were not renovated over the last two decades. Or, the district could build a new, bigger North High School, which had reached capacity due to an influx of refugee and immigrant students on the city's north side.

Kenmore residents turned out in force to those meetings, including Boyes, who spoke for others who couldn’t make it, upset that the district could yet again slight the neighborhood.

"The message they want me to relay," she said. "Stop hurting Kenmore."

The board ultimately did vote to build the new school in Kenmore, the first in years. But it came at a cost for North students, who have to deal with leaky roofs and asbestos.

The district will replace that building, but only if it can get a levy passed in November. Boyes will support it, but she’s unsure if other Kenmore residents will follow suit after years of feeling like they've been left behind.