Making space

Chicago says nearly half of its schools are under-enrolled, but critics challenge district formula

A messaging saying 'we are all unique' adorns a hallway at Belmont-Cragin Elementary, a dual-language school.

Nearly half of Chicago’s schools are under-enrolled, according to new data that highlights the impact of the city’s population loss over the past decade.

The district uses capacity calculations to gauge how effectively schools are using their building space and  which campuses need new additions. In years past, the numbers have been used to help justify school closings.

Chicago Public Schools found 13 more schools operating below capacity than last year. However, recent changes to district metrics make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult.

Some 233 schools don’t have enough students to fill the building to capacity, according to the district, and 34 schools are considered overcrowded, out of about 480 schools. The total number of schools does not include schools that share a building with other schools.

The district, which released its analysis over the holidays, also announced tweaks to its so-called space utilization formula — removing from its analysis pre-K classrooms, as well as rooms that are 650 square feet or less. The district also noted that it gave principals the chance to suggest changes to their school’s designation, noting in a statement that “capturing and responding to principal and community feedback is a key priority for the district.”

Critics, however, question whether the formula is an accurate assessment of school capacity.

“We think this data belongs in the trash can,” said Erica Clark, a founding member of the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, noting that several schools shown to use their space efficiently are, by her estimation, actually overcrowded. “It’s flawed and based on faulty assumptions.”

While changes to the formula were intended to more accurately capture how schools use their space, Wendy Katten, director of strategy for the parent-led advocacy group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, said she didn’t see any significant improvement to this year’s metrics.

“It doesn’t really give you a clear picture of what is happening in the building,” Katten said. The district’s calculation uses 30 students in a classroom as the ideal number, but Katten said that number is far too high, tantamount to “a slap in the face to evidence-based policy making.”

The Center for Public Education cites research showing that as classroom sizes fall, student achievement rises, and the ideal class has no more than 18 students.

But district officials noted that 30 students per class was the average number of students in a full classroom. “The 30 student figure is set in alignment with the district’s class size policy, which is negotiated as part of the CTU [Chicago Teachers Union] contract,” said Michael Passman, spokesperson with the district.

Waters Elementary, a school in the Ravenswood Gardens neighborhood, was labeled ‘efficiently’ enrolled, based on data from the past two school years. But that school is slated for a $24 million expansion.

Josh Kalov, a former Local School Council member at Waters and the creator of Apples2Apples, which analyzes CPS utilization data, said the school was so full that it hasn’t been able to host pre-K in recent years.

“If you assume that it’s a properly utilized elementary building, each school would have x number of pre-K classrooms,” he said, noting that CPS data “isn’t the only thing to look at.”

Some proponents of neighborhood schools, meanwhile, fear that the growing number of schools labeled underutilized means those campuses could be targeted for closures since a five-year moratorium on shuttering district-run schools ended last year.

“I’m concerned that CPS is beginning to use enrollment data and utilization data to build the argument for multiple school closures next fall,” said Alexios Rosario-Moore, a research and policy associate with Generation All, a nonprofit that advocates for neighborhood schools.

Chicago closed 49 schools in 2013, the largest school closing in American history, relying primarily on a justification that schools were underperforming and under-enrolled — there are currently 77,275 students less students today than in 2002. But several years after the closings, research has shown that the traumatic impact of multiple school closures on generations of students didn’t help their academic success.

Since then, parent advocates, community members and even state legislators have pushed for alternatives to school closings to deal with under-enrolled schools.

A state law enacted in August required Chicago to propose actions other than closure for schools where enrollment is declining. The board approved the policy in October of last year.

Earlier this year, the district also released its Annual Regional Analysis, a controversial report about enrollment, academic options, and quality at schools throughout Chicago. The report divides the city into 16 “planning regions,” and shows that in many places, students are skipping out on nearby options, with fewer than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

At a November meeting Chicago Public Schools convened in a predominantly black slice of the Far South Side, residents pushed the district to do more to engage families and to help dispel stigmas they say make their campuses a tough pitch to prospective families. At another such meeting, held recently in a mostly Latino swath of the city, parents called for more resources, such as counselors and bilingual teachers, for neighborhood schools.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacey Davis Gates said CPS should provide more funding for schools to use additional space for parent rooms or other community spaces. “Building spaces would be “utilized” as such if CPS provided funding for community schools,” said Gates. “The real problem is racist city policies that have led to under-enrollment in some areas and overcrowding in others.”

The future of Chicago schools amid declining enrollment and a rising number of families opting out of their neighborhood schools for magnet or charter schools has galvanized city and state leaders alike.

Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First Chicago, a school-choice group which compiled the Annual Regional Analysis with the district, said the drop in Chicago’s school-age population pointed to questions beyond the capacity of individual buildings.

“What is the academic model of the future — and is the utilization calculation based off of thinking ‘what does it take to have a world-class school?’” Anello said.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.