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.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.