In a move that has families on edge, Chicago is exploring enrollment caps at some popular schools

In a city where some schools sit half-empty while others are bursting at the seams, Chicago education officials are trying to build support for a potential solution: capping enrollment at some neighborhood schools.

Instituting caps would mark a significant change in a district that has long guaranteed students admission to one elementary and one high school based on their address — a policy that has meant that families with means can effectively choose their schools based on where they buy or rent homes.

Even before any formal proposals are on the table, parents and school community members are pushing back.

At Audubon Elementary School in Roscoe Village, community members are awaiting a second visit from a top district official who recently gave a presentation about “controlled enrollment,” an approach where some applicants would be sent to nearby schools instead of the one to which they are zoned.

At Burley Elementary School, where classrooms are packed with students from the crowded zone, parents traded anxious emails this week before their principal told them that admissions changes are off the table for this year.

And multiple parents from Sauganash Elementary School exhorted the city school board Wednesday to build an addition to their school rather than send some local students elsewhere.

District officials say no formal proposals are on the table. But it is clear that they are casting about for strategies to quell an ongoing enrollment crisis posed by declining enrollment in some neighborhoods and population booms in others — and that they want local communities to support changes.

“As part of the district’s commitment to engaging school communities and addressing concerns of overcrowding, district representatives have been informally soliciting feedback on potential solutions at a small number of schools,” a spokeswoman, Emily Bolton, said in a statement.

“No policy decisions have been made or proposed and when it comes to issues impacting parents and students, the district’s highest priority is community engagement,” Bolton added.

Controlled enrollment would target longstanding dynamics. But the city faces new pressure to manage crowding because of financial penalties for oversized classes that are baked into its new contract with the Chicago Teachers Union.

The city previously used the approach in some places before discontinuing it because of transportation costs, but it would be new to the neighborhoods where it is currently being discussed.

Under the approach, the city would no longer guarantee admission to a particular school to every student who lives in its zone. Instead, once the school is full, students who seek to enroll would be offered choices of other nearby schools.

Audubon and Burley would appear to be ideal candidates for controlled enrollment. They sit just blocks away from another school, Jahn Elementary, where more than 40% of space went unused last year, according to the city.

The differences among the schools get at the heart of the city’s challenges, which include segregation and inequity on top of a changing and uneven student population.

Audubon and Burley both have student populations that reflect the neighborhood’s increasing affluence. Two-thirds of students are white, while just 2% or less are black — and only about 10% are eligible for subsidized lunch because of their families’ low income. Both schools have enrolled more students each year and now fill their seats exclusively with students who live in their zone. Burley has gotten so crowded that it eliminated its pre-kindergarten program.

The situation is very different at Jahn, where most students last year traveled from other zones to attend. Nearly two-thirds of them were from low-income families, and white students made up just 20% of enrollment.

If some students zoned for Audubon and Burley instead enrolled at Jahn, all three schools’ enrollment challenges could be addressed.

But Jahn is also considered lower-performing, causing many families living in its zone to enroll elsewhere. It has a lower rating from the city, lower state test scores, and higher teacher turnover than Audubon or Burley.

Do those data points reflect subpar teaching at the school? Or do they reflect the fact that Chicago’s population dynamics and enrollment rules sometimes cause needy students to be concentrated in certain schools?

The district’s top demographer, James Dispensa, might have offered a response to that question in his presentation to Burley’s Local School Council about controlled enrollment. He had been scheduled to appear first at a meeting that was canceled because of the teachers strike last month and again Wednesday night.

But in the days leading up to the meeting, anxiety-ridden emails circulated among parents in the community about what the presentation would contain. And on Tuesday, Principal Catherine Plocher told community members that the meeting agenda would no longer include enrollment policy and that the district had assured her that no enrollment changes would happen for the upcoming school year.

“After gaining insight and community feedback at Audubon School’s Local School Council meeting, the district has determined that they are still in the early stages of development needing more time and thought towards policies that would impact neighborhood school enrollment and overcrowding issues,” Plocher wrote.

“I understand that waiting for information without a clear timeline can feel unnerving and create worry, assumptions, and rumors that are not fully accurate,” she added. “The only real solutions and decisions will come from the district itself.”

Some in the Burley community have been pressing for their preferred solution, for the city to build an addition or annex to their school. That has happened at other overcrowded schools, and minutes from the March 2019 Local School Council meeting suggest that Plocher was optimistic about the idea. “Ms. Plocher is continuing to work with CPS headquarters and officials for a possible addition, but is in a holding pattern until the mayoral runoff in April,” the notes read.

But Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who prevailed in that runoff, has emphasized that the city needs to watch its education spending. Already, the school district is the second-most-indebted in the country because of its spending on new buildings. Controlled enrollment, if it worked, could even out enrollment disparities without construction costs.

But changes could also backfire and propel families with means to leave Chicago, adding to the exodus that is already putting extreme pressure on the city’s schools.

Lisabeth Weiner, a former Burley parent, hinted at that possibility during her comments at the school board meeting Wednesday. She said Burley parents and community members want to work with the district to “develop long-term, sustainable solutions while continuing to be part of a stable, unified community.”

Weiner added, “Congruent with that goal is keeping families in the city and enrolled in CPS.”

There are also pockets of the city where controlled enrollment may be less practical. At Wednesday’s board meeting, several speakers from Sauganash Elementary on the Northwest side petitioned for an addition to their school, which has grown more crowded as new home construction in the neighborhood has drawn families. The library has been closed, musical instruments are going unused, and art and science rooms could be converted to classrooms next year, Marikay Hegarty, a member of the Local School Council, told the board.

Planning for new space was a main agenda item at the school’s September Local School Council meeting, where meeting minutes show that Principal Christine Munns reported that the district’s CEO, Janice Jackson, had visited the school early this year and encouraged her to documenting the crowding there.

They may have a point. Sauganash was so crowded last year that its kindergarten classes had 36 and 37 students — but a nearby school, Edgebrook, is also at capacity and had 30 children in its kindergarten classes.

“A change of school boundaries or a cap on enrollment,” Hegarty said, “is not an acceptable solution to our problem.”