The real enrollment challenge in Chicago: what to do with all those empty school seats

In Austin on Chicago’s West Side, a high school built for 1,000 students now houses just 58. Three-quarters of a mile away, another high school has just over 200 students in a campus for 2,000. 

The problem isn’t just high schools, nor just in Austin. In Chicago, which is experiencing a slow population leak, the district has lost 54,100 public school children in the past decade. That has left 145 district-run schools less than half-full, according to new capacity data. 

So far, leaders appear reluctant to spell out a plan for this large swath of schools that are severely underenrolled, even if campuses will soon cost the district even more to operate. A new five-year union contract introduces $1.5 billion in new costs, including the addition of a social worker and nurse at every school, and no clear plan for how to pay for them beyond Year One. 

Running fewer schools would ease the financial pressure of that mandate, as a credit ratings agency signaled in a November report on the union deal. In the math of unevenly distributed enrollment, the contract’s new financial penalties for overcrowded classes have prompted administrators to take a closer look at the small number of schools that are bursting at the seams. 

But neither Mayor Lori Lightfoot nor district leaders seems ready to take on the tough topic of underenrollment, even though propping up struggling schools drains others and deprives some students of rich course offerings and opportunities.

“It’s tricky politically, for sure,” said Marguerite Roza, a school finance expert and the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. “Every city has trouble with it. But it’s also true that cities that have too many under-enrolled schools are finding themselves in financial stress.”

Illinois law requires districts to have a plan for shrinking schools. Chicago’s plan lays out several interventions district leaders might use, from consolidations to redrafting attendance boundaries to leasing out excess classroom space to community groups, but it does not explain what is planned for individual schools. And a Dec. 1 deadline to propose closures for next year passed with the city picking just a single school to shutter, one that has no students enrolled at all. 

District officials acknowledge the challenge but appear to be taking a scattershot approach to addressing it, brokering local conversations about underenrollment while also propping up hundreds of shrinking schools with stopgap funding.

“It’s no secret, I’ve talked about my concerns with the smaller schools in the district,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson told Chalkbeat in October. “When you don’t have enough students, you cannot create a robust program, or academic program, for the students in that school.”

All together, the dynamics suggest that the city isn’t confronting its most pressing education problem: keeping many lightly enrolled schools open is consuming scarce resources that might be more efficiently deployed in other ways.

“While I can’t predict what’s going to happen in the future, we are committed to looking at how we solve these problems holistically with the support of our parents and community partners,” the district’s second-in-command, LaTanya McDade, told Chalkbeat in November. 

The argument for not managing the issue centrally

In the face of declining birth rates, a clampdown on immigration, and some population drain from urban centers, several districts around the country have rolled out systemic strategies for managing enrollment losses.

But even though Chicago is managed centrally, various reasons prompt the district to remain hands-off.

At the top of the list: residual anger and emotional scars from the 2013 mass closure that shuttered 50 schools in predominantly black neighborhoods, displaced thousands of students, and left some communities feeling shortchanged. 

“Many families and teachers understood that maybe their schools needed to close, but they took major issue with the process by which it was done, which they found demeaning, disrespectful and dishonest,” said Chicago sociologist Eve L. Ewing, who studied the closures for her 2018 book “Ghosts in the Schoolyard.”

Since then, district officials have narrowed in on equity and how to direct more money to schools that get caught in a cycle of losing students and losing funding that goes with them, then being forced to make critical cuts to staff and programs that need to be in place to recruit more students. 

But Chicago’s decision to direct $31 million to 219 schools with sagging enrollment last spring meant that, when budget numbers came in and two-thirds of schools saw boosts, some other schools with healthy enrollments saw declines. Nearly half of the schools — 49% — that lost money in the last budget cycle had stable or even increasing enrollment.  The money, in essence, went from some healthy schools to those losing students. 

This has happened in other cities, too, Roza said. “The choices become to take money away from schools that have more kids or leave the (dwindling) schools to kind of flounder.” 

But those conversations are perhaps easier to manage than threatening closures, which tend to put community groups and parents on high alert. In Chicago, where the school board and schools CEO are appointed by the mayor, the buck ultimately stops with her — and she knows that the 2013 closures are being blamed for contributing to the ongoing exodus of working-class families from Chicago.

“It’s a very, very difficult story politically,” said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “Chicago has had many rounds of closures and rarely has performance been at the center of the rationale of the closures, and I think that’s problematic. Other cities have said that, if we have to close schools, it will be because of performance — and not because of a certain percentage of seats aren’t filled. If there is a high-performing school operating under capacity, let’s figure out how it stays open.” 

Financial pressure to manage enrollment is growing. Construction, maintenance, and new school construction have contributed to the second-highest school capital debt in the country. Plus, the new Chicago Teachers Union contract will add hundreds of thousands of dollars more annually to staffing costs per campus in nurses, social workers, and such extras as restorative justice counselors. Reducing the number of schools could pare down those costs.

Unbalanced enrollment exacts other costs. The teachers contract now forces the district to hire aides or add classes at overcrowded schools, which will affect some majority white schools on the North Side. The contract, however, offers no instructions on the many schools in predominantly black neighborhoods, such as Austin or South Shore, that sit half-empty. 

Instead, city officials say they plan to let local communities engineer their own solutions.

“While enrollment continues to be a concern for schools and the district, we do not believe that nuanced enrollment concerns can be addressed with a blanket strategy, especially when demographic changes are rapidly shifting the enrollment landscape,” said Emily Bolton, a district spokeswoman. “Every neighborhood has different needs and the best way to support them is through an individualized approach, which is what the district is pursuing.”

Some communities are already making their own plans, pointing to local leaders’ expertise about local needs. 

Groups in Austin are pushing a “quality-of-life” plan that designates one area high school as an International Baccalaureate center and proposes another vacant school be turned into a business incubator and workforce training center.

On the West Side, hospitals working under an economic development banner known as West Side United are seeking a grant for underenrolled elementary schools interested in housing a pilot community health clinic. The group is eyeing Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale, Pilsen, and Belmont-Cragin.

“The school we choose will be in a sweet spot: They’ll showcase the need for clinical services, such as mental health counseling, but they’ll also be in a position where they next step would be that they become a community hub for the neighborhood,” said Karen Aguirre, education program manager for West Side United.  

But is that enough?

But school-by-school and community-driven changes are running into road bumps.

School consolidation, for example, faces an uphill path as the city teachers union criticizes a high-profile effort in Englewood, and educators struggle to find stability at another, on the city’s Near North Side.

In Englewood, a $85 million new STEM high school helped sell the consolidation idea to the community. But replicating this approach elsewhere would be a big ask of taxpayers in a district saddled with more than $8 billion of debt and a few campuses still left vacant from the 2013 closures.

Another strategy to closings or consolidation is leasing vacant space within schools to community groups or cross-purposing city programs, such as relocating a neighborhood gardening program to a vacant school greenhouse. That takes an infusion of new resources and incentives, said Daniel Anello, the CEO of Kids First Chicago, which drafts the district’s annual school inventory report, called the Annual Regional Analysis. 

“There’s a lot of creative thinking that could really change the way we look at this challenge” Anello said. “But it’s only going to work if there is quarterbacking from City Hall. We can’t close our way out of this. It’s gone on so long.”

Strategic conversations about enrollment should include how to win students and families back who’ve decamped for the suburbs or private schools, said Lake, from the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “Oftentimes cities will be losing enrollment to surrounding districts, so a competitive strategy to win students back is something some places should consider and too few do.”

Chicago could even try a practice known as participatory budgeting, already used by some aldermen to give ward residents latitude to determine how funds are spent, said Ewing, the sociologist. “It would be possible to do something that felt like an extension of that — where the people most affected by school closures are really brought to the table to share ideas and feel like they have an opportunity to understand up front the logic of whatever decision is made. 

“Unfortunately, there is so much pain around this issue, and a justified deficit of trust. So that makes a conversation like that much harder.”

Lessons for the city

One thing is clear: School closures and consolidations are tough conversations everywhere. In Oakland, California, school district leaders drew up a three-year blueprint for closings and consolidations, but community protests have escalated over the plan. In Austin, Texas, administrators keep revising a multiyear strategy of school closings and mergers — in part because the district’s new equity officer has said the planning won’t increase equity in the city. 

Leaders in both cities have been consistent about the need to make tough choices. Faced with the specter of rising debt and empty seats, Austin Superintendent Paul Cruz put it bluntly in a letter earlier this fall: “No change at all is not an option.”

Researchers from the Pew Center studied the phenomena of school closings in shrinking cities in America, and found that some districts made the decisions less politically fraught: Having a plan for what to do with buildings helped. Hiring outside experts to guide the process tended to make it easier as long as those people were perceived as fair. So did establishing clear criteria for which campuses to close.  

“Communicating that no neighborhood is being singled out or targeted is important, and that closings are part of an overall plan for the district’s future,” said Larry Eichtel, who studied the school closings as part of the Philadelphia Research Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts. 

Eichtel said another critical takeaway was the importance of persuading the public early that downsizing is needed. That way, when you get to actual naming of schools, “it’s not such a shock.” 

Following these prescriptions might have yielded a better outcome for Chicago’s most recent closures. 

A 2018 study from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research revealed that four years after the mass school closures, affected Chicago students posted lower math scores. (There were no clear effects on suspension or on attendance rates.)

Elaine Allensworth, the consortium’s director, says that the sheer volume and speed of the 2013 closings might help explain some of Chicago’s negative outcomes, where other cities have seen different results. 

“If there had been more intentionality about the merging of school communities, and if school decisions had more community input so that people felt like they had more self-determination and input about the strengths and problems and limitations of their underenrolled schools, I wonder how things might have been different?” she said. 

Complicating the argument is that research points to little in the way of substantial cost savings when districts close schools, at least in the short term. Across cities, “the money saved, at least in the short run, has been small,” said Eichtel of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “You tend to see more savings when closings are combined with large-scale layoffs.”

In Chicago, the district has yet to show cost savings from the 2013 closings, even though finances were among the justifications used by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. 

But with new numbers showing more schools dramatically hollowing out, ongoing financial pressures, and some schools at the bottom of capacity scale registering below-average graduation rates and achievement levels, there’s a growing recognition that something must be done. 

“The fact that we have high schools with 10% enrollment is a reality. How we got there — we can argue about that,” said Sarah Rothschild, a teachers union official. “But how we move forward — we can do that together. I don’t think we’re in an unsolvable situation.”

Philissa Cramer contributed reporting.