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Out of the Cobwebs

Over the years, as student enrollment declined and education costs escalated, the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, Tenn., reluctantly closed six elementary schools in aging, poorer areas of the city. Parts of the facilities were leased to childcare centers, a Head Start program and a state technical college. Other sections of the closed buildings were left vacant.

Then, an anonymous group of donors stepped forth to underwrite a multi-million-dollar proposal: reopen the six schools. The benefactors provided the money to establish the Jubilee Schools Foundation, and in 1999, the diocese welcomed students back to St. Augustine School. Two more schools re-opened last fall, and by 2002, all six “Jubilee schools” will be back in business.

The schools in Memphis are among many across the nation that are dusting off the cobwebs and getting a second chance. In some cases, school systems that closed facilities after student population declined a generation ago are now finding they need that space back to accommodate a resurgence in enrollment. In other cases, districts trying to abide by mandates to lower class sizes need to reclaim abandoned space. As charter schools become more popular, they often use facilities left vacant by public schools.

Whatever the reasons for returning to once-shuttered facilities, school systems who do so face many similar hurdles: fixing up a facility that may have been neglected for too many years; upgrading a school built in another era so that it meets the needs of 21st -century students; and finding a graceful way to reclaim a facility that may have long-established tenants.

If a district's efforts to reopen a school succeed, it can reap many benefits. It can save money in cases where building a new school is more expensive; it can relieve crowding in other district schools; and it can revitalize a neighborhood by returning a unifying presence to the community.

“By reopening a school, we are making a statement that this neighborhood is coming back,” says Sally Hermsdorfer, assistant superintendent for educational expansion for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.


In 1971, more than 51.2 million students were enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade in the United States. For the next 13 years, that number steadily dropped, and in 1984, slightly fewer than 45 million students attended elementary and secondary schools.

In that time, many school systems dealt with declining enrollments by closing down underused facilities.

But since 1984, the number of students has grown. U.S. student enrollment in grades K-12 is estimated to be nearly 53 million, and the number is expected to rise through 2005.

Other trends have made classroom space more coveted. Many states, together with the federal government, have pushed schools to reduce class size, especially in primary grades. In California, the legislature acted in 1996 to reduce average class size in grades K-3 from an average of 28 to a maximum of 20. By 1998-99, more than 92 percent of K-3 students were in classes of 20 or less, according to the CSR Research Consortium.

As more space was needed, districts didn't always have the money or available sites to build new facilities. Schools that had been closed were seen again as needed facilities. Some school districts had sold their unused facilities, but many held on to them for alternative uses or leased them to community organizations or businesses.

In Columbia, S.C., officials of Richland County School District One had closed Logan Elementary School in 1975 and had been using the facility as an adult education center. When the district determined the nearby McCants Elementary School could no longer accommodate the student population in the area, officials renovated and expanded the Logan facility and made it the area's elementary school.

Reclaiming the past
By 2002, the Catholic Diocese of Memphis will have reopened six inner-city schools.

School Built Closed Reopened
St. Augustine mid-1950s 1990 1999
Blessed Sacrament 1924 1991 2000
St. John 1947 1990 2000
St. Joseph 1966 1985 2001
St. Therese 1930 1980 2001
Holy Names 1939 1969 2002


“We looked at the existing facilities [at McCants]. There was inadequate playground space and inadequate number of classrooms,” says Robert Chestnut, senior associate of management services for Richland One. “It was not easily expandable.”


When a district needs more space, and it has an empty school, the solution seems simple.

But there's more to reopening a school than just deciding to do it. Besides updating a building to meet present standards, a district must have the funds to operate an additional school.

In the North Kansas City (Mo.) district, officials closed down Northgate Junior High School in 1980. By the 1990s, enrollment was climbing again, and administrators decided to reopen Northgate as a middle school.

The community approved bond money to renovate the facility, but for years, the district could not persuade voters to authorize the budget increases needed to open the school.

In the meantime, the district used Northgate as a temporary home for elementary-school students whose buildings were undergoing extensive renovations and repairs. Finally, after Missouri lowered the threshold for approving operating levy increases to a simple majority instead of two-thirds, district voters approved a tax increase in 1999 and Northgate Middle School opened later that year.

In Memphis, the money for reopening the six Catholic schools was provided anonymously. Most of the multi-million-dollar donation (the exact amount was not disclosed) has been set aside to provide scholarships to needy children, but the diocese also received enough money to renovate the buildings.

“They wanted to bring Catholic education back to the inner city,” says Hermsdorfer.


It makes sense for a district that needs more space to look at former school buildings. But often the district has sold or leased the facility and no longer has control.

In Palo Alto, Calif., school officials have been working with the city to try to regain control of a former school building so it can be reopened.

After determining that the district needs another middle school, officials have set their sights on the former Terman Middle School, which was closed in the 1970s. But the city has a lease-to-own contract with the school district for the building, and the city is in turn leasing it to the Jewish Community Center.

“After years sitting idle or being used for a different purpose, a school building is likely to need some upgrading to be able to serve students effectively.”

Even when a school system still owns a building, displacing tenants can be a sensitive topic.


In Memphis, displacement has been less of an issue because the diocese is reopening schools gradually — a few grade levels each year. That has left room for tenants — childcare or Head Start programs in most cases — to share the facilities and have ample time to find another home.

After years sitting idle or being used for a different purpose, a school building is likely to need some upgrading to be able to serve students effectively.

Age and neglect can lead to significant repair needs. Requirements and expectations that didn't exist years ago — the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), computers and Internet connections in every classroom — mean that even schools that seem in decent shape need upgrades.

In Richland One, the district needed to add an elevator to comply with the ADA. It also installed energy-efficient windows that weren't available when the building was last used as an elementary school.

In suburban Chicago, New Trier District 203 is spending $24 million to renovate the former New Trier West High School in Northfield, which closed in 1985. It is scheduled to open later this year as a freshmen-only campus and relieve crowding at New Trier High School in Winnetka.

Repairs in Memphis included removal of asbestos lining and insulation, an upgrade of HVAC systems, lower ceilings for noise abatement, roof repairs and repainting.

“It was not anything unduly expensive,” says Hermsdorfer. “These are extremely strong buildings.”

The key to keeping renovation expenses down is to maintain the building regularly, even when vacant.


“The critical thing is that the building be weatherproofed,” says Martin Braeske, a planning supervisor for St. Louis Public Schools, which is reopening several facilities. “If you get water in the building, that is the kiss of death.”

Besides providing needed classroom space, reopening a school building can give the community a boost. In Richland One, reopening Logan enhances a neighborhood in downtown Columbia, S.C., that was already being revitalized.

“It's in an historic area where many homes are being restored,” says Chestnut. “It's also on a major artery and has high visibility in the neighborhood. All of that went into the decision to reopen the building.”

In St. Louis, district officials have joined with community leaders to reopen a school that all involved hope will re-energize the neighborhood (see sidebar, p. 20).

Having a facility begin to show signs of life can change the climate of a neighborhood, as school officials in the Memphis diocese found out when they began renovating facilities at one of the Jubilee schools.

“Just putting a new fence around the football field has moved the drug traffic out of the neighborhood,” says Hermsdorfer.

Sidebar: Returning to the past

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected] .

As a result of a desegregation lawsuit in St. Louis, nearly 13,000 minority students from the city have been attending schools in the suburbs. But in 1999, those involved in the litigation agreed to settle the case, and over the next several years, those 13,000 students will gradually return to St. Louis public schools.

That means the district, which has about 43,000 students in 109 schools, will have to find facilities to accommodate the returning children. A key provision of the settlement of the desegregation lawsuit provides the St. Louis district with $180 million over 10 years from the State of Missouri to pay for new facilities and renovations.

The district has announced plans to build several new schools, but it also is renovating two long-closed elementary buildings and hopes to open them this fall. Adams Elementary was closed in 1993 and Monroe Elementary shut down in 1981. Renovation of each is expected to cost about $8 million.

Although renovation in some cases turns out to be more expensive, the district believes the value of saving older historic sites can outweigh the additional costs, says Martin Braeske, planning supervisor for St. Louis Public Schools. Renovation can be less disruptive to a community, and on many sites, especially those schools built in the early part of the 20th century, there isn't enough space to build a new school.

“In the ’20s and ’30s, there wasn't a lot of land used for schools,” says Braeske. “At some schools, there is not enough room for playgrounds.”

At the same time, it can be difficult for a district to find a suitable site in a built-out urban area. So renovation is often the best option. As an added benefit, the schools can provide a neighborhood with a sense of history.

“We've got a gold mine of architectural treasures,” says Braeske.

The reopening of Adams Elementary will come eight years after the district closed its doors. The building has been gutted and is being thoroughly renovated. Adams' rebirth will not only provide needed space for students, but also give the surrounding community a much sought-after shot in the arm.

“The Washington University Medical Center was interested in bootstrapping the neighborhood,” says Braeske. “They want the school to be the anchor of the neighborhood.”

The school building, parts of which date to the 19th century, will get a thorough overhaul. In addition, the Medical Center and private contributors are helping to pay for an addition that will house a community center.

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