Chicago is expanding sought-after academic programs. Now it’s seeing some welcome payoffs.

Chicago is plowing money into special academic programs that it is sprinkling throughout the city — a move to spread opportunity more equitably, the district maintains, and not primarily to boost enrollment.

But don’t tell that to Principal Dan Kramer, whose Roosevelt High School just marked its first enrollment increase in a decade, after the school won funding last spring to launch a dual language program.

“For us to begin to rebound and rebuild enrollment is very positive, and being able to offer dual language directly contributes to that,” Kramer said about the program where students will be taught classes in English as well as in Spanish or Arabic.

About the school’s striking enrollment gain, he said, “It might be more of an outcome than a driving goal, but it’s a very much appreciated outcome.”

Numbers examined by Chalkbeat bear out his enthusiasm.

Half of the 32 Chicago schools that won funding last spring to add new programs increased enrollment this school year. The entire group saw enrollment decline by only 0.34%, one-fifth the district’s rate. There is no proof yet, but it appears to be a potential payoff from a program that schools throughout the city have been clamoring for.

Granted, the district’s enrollment drop has slowed markedly as well, down to 1.7% this year from 2.7% last year. 

The 102 schools that originally applied for program funding had seen an average enrollment decline of about 5.2% last school year, nearly twice the district average. The 70 schools that applied but failed to win funding this year averaged a 1.28% drop in enrollment — closer to the district average.

But not all of the funding recipients benefitted when it came to enrollment, and principals shouldn’t consider a program a “scout patch” to stamp on their schools without considering what it will take to implement, said Sam Mathias, who works in the district’s Office of Innovation and Incubation.

He noted that some of last year’s applicants may have been enthused about adding programs, but hadn’t laid all the groundwork within the district to succeed. The district hopes to change that with a second round of grants this year, by providing feedback and suggestions for improvement to schools that don’t win the funding, which will be announced in the spring.

“There were a lot of schools that didn’t have network chief support, and that’s a big indicator to us,” Mathias said. After 58 schools were invited to submit full applications in last year’s first round of funding, selecting finalists was “often based on a balance of the needs of the school and their readiness to implement the program,” he said.

Even as it launches its second year of the request for proposals, Mathias said there is no set number of schools or dollars for this year’s awardees. The main goal remains making academic programs more equally available for students districtwide.

Using the programs to slow enrollment decline is “not our intent,” Mathias said, “although it only makes sense that people look at it that way.”

Principals like Kramer welcome the chance to respond to the district’s request for proposals, a method for awarding expansion money that “has created a more even playing field,” he said. Previously, principals had to contact each program department — dual language, gifted, and so on — and find out the nuanced differences to apply to each one separately.

“Sometimes, not knowing where to seek support could feel like as much of an obstacle as what was actually available,” Kramer said.

While Roosevelt won’t begin offering dual-language classes until next fall — the funding is spread over six years with a built-in incubation year — Kramer and other recruiters have already heavily pushed the program as a key reason why incoming freshmen should consider Roosevelt.

And it seems to be working: this year, the school’s enrollment grew by 100 students, the first significant increase since 2009 (not including figures from the phased-out middle school). Over the past decade, the Roosevelt enrollment has plummeted 40%, to 922 students last year.

Now the neighborhood high school, which offers culinary arts, game programming and medical career courses, is in the midst of a “real renaissance moment,” said Lauren Sivak, founding president of Friends of Roosevelt.

Sivak decided to launch the group last year after a graduating senior told her that “no matter how many good things happen at this school, there’s always a dark cloud hanging above us,” Sivak recounted. A 2013 shooting outside the school and low school ratings — coupled with high principal turnover — contributed to the negative perception.

But, Sivak said, Kramer, now in his third year as principal, has grounded the school, while Friends of Roosevelt has raised $14,000 in under two years for building improvements and marketing.

Roosevelt escaped district probation after two years of improved ratings, and the dual language program will only further enhance what it can offer students, one-third of whom are English language learners, Kramer said.

Situated in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago, Roosevelt’s students together speak almost two dozen languages. Being able to offer core academic classes like chemistry and history taught in two languages “means kids have more than just a spoken fluency,” Kramer said. “They can read, write and speak at a very high academic level, which is going to make them successful in college and qualify for careers for people who are bilingual.”

It also allows a new mindset for the school, he said.

“We’re reversing the idea that a student developing English proficiency as something that needs corrective action,” Kramer said, “and instead saying the fact they’re coming here with fluency in more than one language is a huge skill set that we need to build on.