Chicago schools look beyond closures to tackle declining student population

The Chicago Board of Education plans to vote Wednesday on a new policy that would target underenrolled schools for help rather than closure.

The policy would bring Chicago Public Schools in compliance with a state law enacted in August requiring the school district to adopt a policy addressing schools deemed underenrolled and list potential interventions for schools losing enrollment.

School district spokesman Michael Passman wrote in a statement that the policy continues work the district has already begun to back schools wrestling with dwindling or low enrollment, including $15 million in recent funding for such schools and a new application process for schools to add programs to attract more students.

“We are fully committed to providing the supplemental funding and support that schools with low enrollment need to offer students a high-quality education,” Passman said.

Five years after staging the biggest mass school closing in American history, the district appears to be backing away from shuttering schools as a first response to underenrollment.  

However, the prospect of more closings provokes apprehension, especially in Chicago’s African-American community, which bore the brunt of the 2013 closings. Indeed, the district is currently phasing out several underenrolled high schools in Englewood, a predominantly black South Side neighborhood.

Chicago Public Schools, while on better financial footing than in 2013, is still wrestling with dramatically shrinking enrollment and could have some tough choices to make. A report released in September projects enrollment to decline 5 percent by 2021, from 371,000 to 352,000 students.

Parents, students and community organizers have vociferously opposed closing schools.

“What we want to do is make sure that school closures in Chicago are the last resort, and use innovative strategies to keep schools as anchors in the community as much as possible,” said Cecile Carroll, co-director of Humboldt Park community group Blocks Together, emphasizing studies showing the 2013 closings hurt students both academically and emotionally.

Carroll, a community organizer and public school parent, served on a 2008 state task force that reviewed Chicago’s school closings process and long-term facilities planning.

The school district’s new policy defines an underenrolled school as one using less than 70 percent of the building’s ideal capacity, which the school district determines via its utilization formula. An underenrolled school must also have experienced two consecutive years of enrollment declines of more than 10 percent, and not have already received any of the programming interventions stipulated in the policy.

Among the measures the new policy suggests to keep the schools open: Redrafting attendance boundaries, renting extra space to a government agency or other entity, halting other school expansion plans that could siphon away students, and collaborating with schools on strategies such as adding programs and crafting joint-use agreements for their campuses.

The district already co-locates some  schools on the same campus. The Little Village/Lawndale High School Campus contains four autonomous high schools, including Infinity Math Science and Technology High School and World Language Academy High School, both Level 1+ schools with growing enrollment, and Multicultural Academy of Scholarship and Greater Lawndale High School For Social Justice, both level 2+ schools that have seen enrollment decline in recent years.

Carroll stressed that the district’s enrollment analysis shows thousands of unfilled seats at top-rated schools. Underenrolled schools need help marketing themselves, she said, suggesting the district could help schools improve their websites and their social media presence to publicize “great things happening in their building.”

“Being able to get rid of any stigma that’s been around the school will be important,” she said.