CPS releases key enrollment figures

Data that could drive school closings suggest 136 schools are half-empty

December 4, 2012

Source: Chicago Public Schools, Enrollment data prior to 2006 is from CPS Racial/Ethnic Surveys. Data from 2006 to present is from CPS 20th Day Membership files, both at http://www.cps.edu/SchoolData/Pages/SchoolData.aspx.

Chicago Public School officials have released the much-anticipated new enrollment numbers that will be used to determine whether or not a school might be closed in June. 

But the new data indicates that just 40 percent of the city’s schools are safe from action.

Twenty percent of CPS schools are more than half empty and another 25 percent are considered “underutilized.” The district could also decide to make changes to the 12 percent of schools labeled “overcrowded.” 

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll says the district would not likely close an overcrowded school, but it could make changes to attendance boundaries or shift some grades into different buildings.

Adam Anderson, CPS' officer of portfolio, planning and strategy, said Tuesday the enrollment problems stem from the fact that the city’s school-age population is declining in most areas.

“You see a decrease from 845,000 to 700,000 from 2000 to 2010,” Anderson explained during a telephone briefing with reporters. “This represents a decrease of 17 percent overall.”

But public school enrollment has not changed as dramatically in that time. Overall school enrollment has decreased just 6 percent. However, district enrollment patterns have been exacerbated because school officials opened new schools that drew enrollment away from traditional schools.

The percentage of students attending traditional schools dropped 17 percent, while the percentage in charter schools (many of which operate in private buildings) has increased. Today more than 50,000 students attend charter schools.

Anderson says there are pockets on the north and southwest sides of the city where the number of school-aged children is increasing. That further complicates the problem, as extra buildings are not necessarily available in some of those areas.

Activists and some parents take issue with how the district calculates its ideal building capacity. Jeanne Marie Olson, a parent with the Raise Your Hand coalition, has been analyzing class sizes and the way the district calculates “utilization.” They don’t always go hand-in-hand, she says. In some cases a school is labeled "under-enrolled," but it may have overcrowded classrooms. 

Olson adds that CPS is overstating the number of schools that are underutilized and overcrowded because officials are not sticking to the district’s recommended class size limits when calculating overcrowding. The calculation allows for a maximum of 36 students in a class before it’s considered overcrowded and labels anything below 25 as underutilized. In other words, Olson suggests, CPS is treating 30 students as a target — not a cap. 

Olson says when she adjusted the calculations so that 30 represented a maximum class size, she found more schools could be characterized as overcrowded, while fewer would be considered underutilized.