As Chicago’s class size crackdown begins, schools that are ‘overenrolled by choice’ could face admissions changes

Crowded neighborhood elementary schools aren’t the only schools in Chicago that could face changes to how students are admitted. 

Now that oversized classes will cost the city, Chicago Public Schools is also taking a hard look at schools that choose to admit so many students that class sizes swell beyond the city’s limits — a move that cushions those schools’ budgets but also leaves students and teachers in classes of 30 or more.

“We are as a district looking at schools that are overcrowded by choice. I think that’s an important nuance,” CEO Janice Jackson told Chalkbeat recently. 

Jackson said conversations with the Chicago Teachers Union in contract negotiations, including during the 11-day teachers strike in October, had revealed that “some local decisions being made” have contributed to oversized classes. The new contract obligates the city to put funding for the first time behind reducing class size — up to $35 million a year.

Jackson did not point to any particular schools or specify what actions could result from the district’s scrutiny. But anxiety about how the class size rules might affect admissions is already beginning to emerge at schools that could be vulnerable. 

“This will have an impact on a lot of decisions we make,” Ravenswood Elementary School’s interim principal, Patrina Singleton, told attendees at Monday’s Local School Council meeting. “We don’t have to worry about anyone coming after us right now, but it does have an implication for us to start thinking about what we’ll do for class size.”

Up to now, principals in Chicago have been given significant discretion to make enrollment decisions as they see fit, facing consequences only if members of their communities complain. 

Neighborhood elementary schools must admit any student in their zone who wishes to attend, and all schools also admit students by lottery through the city’s choice process, known as GoCPS. Under the current system, the vast majority of schools — about 85% — have classes below the city’s limits of 28 in kindergarten through fifth grade and 31 in middle and high school grades.

A small but significant number of schools, though, have oversized classes. In some cases, so many students live in the zone that large classes are impossible to avoid. (Some of those schools could face enrollment caps.) Other schools can’t afford to add another teacher when classes exceed the limits by just a few students, or can’t find a teacher to hire at all.

But sometimes principals choose to push the class size limits because they know they’ll receive an additional $4,500 from the district for each student, meaning that maintaining oversized classes can result in art teachers, special programs, and school services that schools otherwise might not be able to afford. Especially in more affluent communities, that tradeoff can feel palatable for parents and teachers who might otherwise prefer smaller classes.

The new contract with the teachers union puts the city on the hook for addressing oversized classes however they were created. The contract also emphasizes that schools in low-income areas should get support first.

Sarah Rothschild, a union official who led bargaining around class size issues, said contract talks grappled with the different origins of oversized classes.

“I kept saying that we’ve got to make sure we’re not rewarding principals who are overstuffing their classes on purpose,” Rothschild said.

Exactly which schools could face additional enrollment oversight is unclear, but the new contract offers clues. When it comes to schools that enroll many students who live outside their boundaries, a “side agreement” says, “the board will address projected overenrollment with principals and provide guidance with the intent of reducing oversized classrooms.”

Ravenswood and Hamilton elementary schools were among several schools that last year had large kindergarten classes and more than a third of students across all grades coming from outside their zone, suggesting that those principals might have overenrolled on purpose or struggled to balance zoned and lottery admissions.

“It’s our privilege to be open to all neighborhood students,” Jessica Ashley, chair of Ravenswood’s local school council, told Chalkbeat. “That often means the week before school, we get a surge of kids coming in, and it’s really difficult to plan for. … It’s a systemic issue.”

Some of the city’s gifted and magnet schools, too, have maintained large classes even though no students are guaranteed admission to them. They include Hawthorne and Stone elementary schools, which last year had kindergarten classes with 30 students or more. 

Exactly what changes will look like, and who might contest them, remains to be seen. Unlike capping enrollment at zoned schools, reducing the number of students admitted through GoCPS won’t result in families being sent away from schools they believed they were entitled to attend. 

But schools could soon feel the pinch, and since additional students can translate to additional staff members, even seemingly small changes could soon add up.

“We cannot lose budget. We cannot,” Ashley said. “But I know what the dollars mean and there is a very limited window of what is too many [students in each class] and what is a functional number for our school.”

The contract obligates the school board only to inform the union about changes to board policies, suggesting that the district has wide latitude to make changes to admissions on its own. But Rothschild said she hoped the city would involve communities and teachers in decision-making, which could build buy-in but slow change. 

Even admissions changes that go uncontested could take a while to make their way to schools. Rothschild noted that it took three years for rules adopted in the 2016 contract about kindergarten aides to turn into a process that works.

Just the fact that enrollment policy is breaking into public view has union officials optimistic that issues they raised at the bargaining table could reshape city schools policy. 

“The fact that we had conversations in contract negotiations and all of a sudden there were school meetings, that was a huge shocker,” Rothschild said. “I definitely am hopeful.” 

For now, as at Ravenswood, schools that could face new enrollment scrutiny are beginning to think about what the contract’s class size rules could mean for them. 

At Hawthorne’s Local School Council meeting last month, Principal Patricia Davlantes said she had already been told that a teachers aide would join a kindergarten class of 32, a number that exceeded even her own preferences after one family that was expected to move away had not.

But she said she wasn’t sure whether or how Hawthorne — which as a magnet has no zoned students — might be hemmed in in the future.

“What has always been at least talked about in schools that control their enrollment, is that something CPS can fund, or the school has to fund?” she told community members at the meeting. “I still don’t know the answer to that. Before we plan for fall enrollment, I’ll try to get a definitive answer.”

Ariel Cheung contributed reporting.