No simple answers for Chicago's severely overcrowded schools

At the same time Chicago Public Schools is closing school buildings, it faces serious overcrowding in at least 50 schools

June 12, 2013

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Chicago is boarding up 50 public schools over the summer because, officials say, the schools have too few kids to keep operating.

But for every one that Chicago Public Schools is closing, there’s a severely overcrowded school, many where parents and administrators are begging for expensive additions.

It’s all one district—so it seems like there should be a way to even things out.  But it’s not an easy problem to solve.

Every corner of Peck Elementary School—from the entry ways to the closets—is used by someone throughout the day. The music teacher’s “office” is on a corner of the stage. The social worker meets with students in the projection room. The bilingual coordinator works in a closet-sized room at the top of a stairwell.

Principal Okab Hassan says the school has been packed full for more than a decade.

The old library is now a food preparation center. The old cafeteria has been converted into two classrooms, each now filled with about 35 fifth grade students.

“According to the board, we are 206 percent overcapacity and still they’re discussing how they can build us a school,” Hassan said.

Peck is one of 50 schools the district considers severely overcrowded, with a 206 percent utilization rate. In all, the district has 81 overcrowded buildings, according to its utilization formula.

Four years ago, the Board of Education approved a resolution to build a $54 million addition at Peck. It would have been finished this fall. Instead, Peck is getting a mobile unit, bringing the total number of temporary classrooms parked on the playground to 18. That doesn’t count the classrooms in the annex behind the main building.

Hassan jokes the school grounds look like a refugee camp.

The city’s predominantly Latino Southwest Side is hardest hit by overcrowding. The Northwest Side is also hard hit, and pockets of overcrowding are popping up around successful schools that attract middle class families on the north side.

At Wildwood Elementary, principal Mary Beth Cunat is constantly trying to find space in her small building--it’s now at 175 percent capacity. Thursdays are particularly difficult because clinicians who work with special needs students are at the school.

“Good morning, this is a reminder that on Thursdays the stage is used for clinician work so students are not allowed to do rehearsals or projects on the stage on Thursdays,” Cunat announced over the loud speaker a couple of weeks ago.

Cunat’s office is in the library closet and she shares it with two other administrators—the International Baccalaureate coordinator and the librarian. Last year, a cohort of 8th grade students did not have a permanent room. Instead, they used whatever room was empty during any given period.

“If the fifth graders were at gym, they would use that fifth grade room, it was just really a scramble,” Cunat said. 

Wildwood parents have been begging the Board of Education for an annex for the last couple of months. They’ve had a temporary mobile for 13 years and still don’t have room for all of the students.

And all of this is going on at the same time a political battle is being waged over the fate of schools the district considers under-enrolled.

So, how can a district have both under-enrolled schools and over-enrolled schools? If the city is in control of both, why can’t it find a solution?  A solution that wouldn’t involve the painful process of closing schools and building expensive new ones.

“It seems intuitive, but it’s a bit like saying on any given night there are fifty restaurants where people are lined up outside the door and there are fifty other restaurants where the tables are empty,” said Charlie Wheelan, author of Naked Economics and a professor of economics and public policy at Dartmouth University. “No one would ever suggest, well let’s just take the overcrowded restaurants and send them somewhere else. People don’t want to go there. It’s really about changing the food that’s being served. It’s not just about moving customers around.”

Wheelan said most cost-effective options, like busing kids or adjusting attendance boundaries, are a hard sell for parents who are invested in a certain school.

“Parents who have bought into a certain school are very resistant to then being told they’re going to a school, it may be close, but it’s not what they intended to do,” he said.

One way to get parents to buy into busing or moving kids, Wheelan said, would be to replicate the academic program at the overcrowded school in another underutilized or empty school building in a less crowded area.

But even that can be hard in a city plagued with violence and deep racial divides.

CPS officials are not too specific about long-term strategies to address overcrowding, but a draft ten-year facilities plan put out last month hints at solutions:

Preliminary analysis of the current overcrowding situations suggests that many, perhaps nearly two-thirds of the overcrowding situations, could theoretically be solved through means much more cost effective than by building expensive additional capacity, by making policy decisions -- albeit very difficult decisions for those affected by them. We believe that if these alternative methods of overcrowding relief were fully deployed, overcrowding could be solved with approximately $500-600 Million, but it is unrealistic to expect those other means could be successfully deployed to resolve each of these situations. In addition, at the time of this publication, we are evaluating adding additional temporary capacity - and may be able to relocate temporary capacity from some of our less utilized schools in order to accomplish this.

Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz says, frankly, the district doesn’t have the money to construct new schools, so district officials are looking for creative solutions.

“You can’t pick up facilities and move them, but students perhaps are a little bit more mobile, and (we’re) seeing where we can kind of level-load the system and making sure we can help those students and making sure they also have great educational opportunities as well,” Ruiz said.

Busing is not cheap, but it’s far less expensive than building a new school. District officials said a bus route costs about $50,000 each year and temporary mobile buildings cost about $1.6 million to install. An annex or addition can run between $17 and $20 million, while a brand new elementary school facility is roughly $45 million.

CPS officials are working to relieve overcrowding at 22 schools for next year. Annexes are being built at Bell, Durkin Park, Hale, Onahan, Edison Park, Stevenson, Coonley and Oriole Park; they plan to install mobile classrooms at Dirksen, Gray, Little Village, Locke, Lyon, Tonti and Peck; and officials are leasing private space for Chavez, Columbia Explorers, Peck, Smyser, Tarkington, Sandoval, Coonley and Edwards. 

The additional mandate of full-day kindergarten for every school left many already-overcrowded schools scrambling for space. In the case of Edwards, CPS initially proposed another modular unit, but parents refused and instead the school will lease space in a nearby church as a temporary solution. 

Adam Waytz is a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and teaches a class on how to navigate ethical decision-making when there aren’t clear right or wrong answers. He says organizations have to engage their communities first and then develop a long-term strategy. 

“There needs to be a focus on what’s best for the long-term, potentially even at the expense of the short term,” Waytz said. “It’s not clear to me what the long term goal is here.”

Without a long-term strategy, Waytz said, organizations like CPS end up always reacting, or putting out fires.

That’s what’s happening right now at places like Peck and Wildwood. And parents caught in the middle are frustrated.

Deanna Conklin Danao has two children at Wildwood.

“Each time CPS turns over and gets a new CEO and a new staff is hired and people who understood what was going on are let go or repositioned, our children age and in that process, your kids are never going to see an addition,” Conklin Danao said. “My kids in first and second grade are unlikely to see an addition and if they do it would be middle school, at best. Our kids age in this system and it just keeps happening on the backs of them.”

The day after I visited, CPS sent an architect to Wildwood.

But they’re not thinking about building an addition or looking at a long term solution. The architect is drawing up plans that will convert the library into a classroom by knocking down the wall to principal Cunat’s closet office.