Future uncertain for Chicago's neighborhood high schools

Enrollment in free fall as neighborhood high schools battle past track records and an increasingly competitive marketplace.

October 3, 2013

WBEZ/Linda Lutton
This year, freshmen in Clemente Community Academy's attendance boundary are enrolled in 66 different high schools. Only 17 percent are at Clemente. Neighborhood high schools are experiencing deep enrollment declines,which is leading to reduced course offerings and activities at some schools.

The front doors of Hirsch Metropolitan High School open onto a wide South Side park—Hirsch’s football field.

About 18 boys, some dressed for practice and others still in jeans, meander out to the field one recent afternoon. Head football coach Cassius Chambers contemplates his team from the edge of the park. He has a numbers problem. "We possibly need about 26 kids to have a successful football team. Right now we’re anywhere between 21 and 24 on any given day."

Hirsch has no freshman-sophomore team, no junior varsity team.  Chambers says he hopes to have one next year, but if Hirsch's enrollment continues to drop, the school may not have a next year.

Many of Chicago’s 50 neighborhood high schools are anchors of their communities. But some city high schools have alarmingly few students enrolled this fall, raising questions about whether neighborhood high schools with long Chicago histories will be able to stay alive in an ever more competitive marketplace.

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This year, with 273 total students, Hirsch is smaller than nearby grammar schools. And while some high schools are intentionally small, that’s not the idea here.

The number of students in Hirsch's attendance area has been declining gradually, but that's not the main cause of Hirsch's enrollment headaches. It's that students in the neighborhood are doing exactly what Chicago wants them to do—they’re going to high schools all over the city. This fall, the 682 freshmen who live in Hirsch’s attendance boundary are attending 85 different high schools. Just 45 of them go to Hirsch.

"That is the problem," says Chambers, still looking out at his team. "There’s so many schools in the city right now, and we’re getting more and more schools, so you just see the programs like this separating. The kids are getting pulled every which way in the city."

Hirsch senior Erin Pryor sees other problems brought on by her school's shrinking size. She used to go to a larger high school on the North Side. "We had Korean club, gay-straight alliance, chess club, science club, tennis team, bowling team, golf—there’s a lot of stuff I can’t even name!" says Erin.

How many of those activities are available at Hirsch? None, she says. She says teachers still talk about the school's broadcast communications program, no longer functional. And she says there was a drama club until the teacher left.

With fewer students, there are fewer teachers, fewer clubs. Music class, which some seniors need to graduate, is being offered online at the school.

And the future does not look bright, especially considering a new per-pupil budgeting system the district has moved to. Ninth grade is usually the largest class in an urban high school, and a harbinger of what future years will bring. At Hirsch, there are just 62 freshmen this fall—basically a couple of homerooms. Student-based budgeting would give Hirsch around $300,000 as a base amount for those students.

Too many high schools?

Other big comprehensive Chicago high schools that not so long ago had hundreds of ninth graders are also in free fall—Robeson, Tilden, Richards, and Hope all have fewer than 100 freshmen this year.

"Wow, well that’s a huge change," says Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Hill is the architect of the portfolio model of school choice that Chicago is following. The idea is for the district to offer all kinds of schools—magnets, charters, selective schools, neighborhood schools-- and let students gravitate toward "quality.” 

But Chicago high school students are being spread thinner and thinner across all those choices. High school enrollment has grown slightly in the last decade, around 8 percent. But the actual number of high schools has exploded in that time, from 106 to 154 today.  Nearly all the new schools are charters.

So do we want this many high schools? Is this how things are supposed to work?

"You do want to have a slight oversupply," says Hill. "But if it's so great that nobody can deliver their program because they’re all underenrolled, that’s not a good thing,"

Hill says there's a simple test to figure out if a city has too many schools. "Are some of these schools having to get extra money to keep going? And if that’s the case, you’ve got too many schools."

That is in fact the case. Just last week, Chicago gave extra money to 70 percent of all neighborhood high schools because they didn’t get the number of students they’d expected.

Roberto Clemente Community Academy in Humboldt Park is one of those. It’s an eight-story building. Until recently escalators carried 1,800 kids from floor to floor. There are just 130 freshmen enrolled today. Another 473 freshmen live in the area but go to high school somewhere else. In fact, the Noble Street network of charter schools, with its various campuses, enrolls more students from Clemente's attendance area than Clemente.

Battling a bad brand

In the quest for students. Clemente is battling something nearly every neighborhood high school has to fight: its reputation. On a recent afternoon, two seventh graders walked by Clemente on their way home from elementary school. Neither plans on attending Clemente.

"I’m going to Schaumburg (to live) with my dad," the boy said.

"My dad doesn’t want me going there, and my mama doesn’t want me going there," his classmate chimed in. She named several schools she'd rather go, all either charters or selective enrollment schools.

"I just know that there’s a lot of bad history in there," the boy says.

Principal Marcey Sorensen says neighborhood schools have to own up to their pasts. "Clemente for many, many years was a failing high school," Sorensen says.

Now the principal is tackling dismal graduation rates, implementing one of the city's "wall to wall" International Baccalaureate programs, and addressing violence issues—all with some real success. That’s a huge job on its own. But then there’s this other job of convincing parents that the Clemente brand is now new and improved.

"We just had some feeder school parents in the other day, and one of the moms said to me, ‘God, it’s just not what I expected,'" Sorensen says. She was pleasantly surprised. "She’s like, ‘This is amazing.’ So we have to make our neighborhood high schools better to sell them to parents."

Another common denominator for high schools with severely declining enrollment is location in a rough neighborhood. Mike Milkie is founder of Noble Street Charter Schools, the city's most successful charter school network. Despite high student achievement from nearly all Noble campuses, Milkie says it is harder to recruit students to the network's campuses in Englewood and East Garfield Park. "The only campuses where we’ve had enrollment challenges are those which are at least perceived as unsafe neighborhoods and so not enough kids will travel there," says Milkie.

Cristina Pacione-Zayas, education director at the Latino Policy Forum, says there are reasons to keep a neighborhood high school alive that go beyond just the school itself; they get at a school's role in a community. She says Clemente is "literally the heart" of the Humboldt Park community. "Everyone talks about the Puerto Rican flags and how they go 50 feet under. You know, Clemente’s got some deep roots too, and I just can’t ever see it shriveling up on the vine."

Pacione-Zayas wrote her dissertation on Clemente and worked there for two years, on improving enrollment and attendance. She hates seeing kids flee their neighborhood for other schools. 

"We’re losing talent, we’re losing leaders who can help us solve some of our greatest challenges in the community," she says.

No plan to undercut neighborhood schools, but "an outcome"

School Board president David Vitale says the district is trying to help neighborhood schools succeed. He points to deep investments, including new STEM and International Baccalaureate programs.

Vitale insists the board will not be closing any more schools immediately. But he admits that from a budget perspective it will be difficult for some schools to keep going if enrollments continue to dwindle.

Vitale says the district will continue to open schools in its quest to expand quality. But he says there’s no conspiracy here—no plan to undercut neighborhood high schools.

"We put a lot of money into some of these neighborhood schools trying to improve quality. It’s a challenge... these are really difficult schools to turn around and make successful. So, we wouldn’t be investing in places like (Orr, Collins), Harper and others—if we wanted them to disappear, I guarantee you. So it’s not a plan. It may be an outcome, but it’s not a plan."

Race Against Time

Afina Lockhart, the principal at Hirsch, chooses to look at the positive side of her small high school. She says she can offer personalized attention to kids, and class sizes are small. She's brought afterschool programs and other services. But she says she really needs something significant that would make Hirsch more competitive in this marketplace.

"I’ve seen schools offer exciting opportunities for students, and (at) Hirsch, we need more. We need sort of a smorgasbord of opportunities," says Lockhart.

Outside Hirsch one recent afternoon, a group of seniors came up with the same solution. "If we get more funding for the stuff we want to do, we might can do it. You'll get more students in if you make it seem like we're doing something here," said one girl, to a chorus of approvals. It’s a chicken-or-egg problem. In order to have a shot at winning additional students, schools need programs to attract them. But without more students, funding additional programs will be nearly impossible.

In many ways, for neighborhood high schools, it’s a race against the clock. Remake yourself and sell your new brand to students before you shrink out of existence.

Linda Lutton is an education reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.

Scroll down for a pdf of additional charts showing where ninth graders in particular attendance areas go to high school. WBEZ obtained the charts through an open records request.

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