WBEZ tours 'half-empty' schools

January 22, 2013

 

Chicago Public School leaders say 137 of their schools are sitting half-empty – with way too few students. When they talk about closing schools to make the district more efficient, these are the schools they’re talking about. WBEZ went to see what it looks and feels like inside some of the district’s “underutilized” elementary schools. 

On a sunny, cold Thursday morning, Principal Keshia Warner showed me around Drake Elementary School in Bronzeville.

At first impression, the three-story, 1960s-era building felt almost empty, with bare white walls and un-scuffed floors.

“Now we’re basically on the first level of the school building and at our entry, the first room is our art room,” Warner said, opening the door to a colorful classroom. “So, we have art as a half-time program so art is here on Monday, Tuesday and the morning Wednesday, so right now, that’s why there’s nobody in there.”

The wide hallways are quiet and the first few classrooms we pass either have no students or are being used for small groups of special needs students.

On paper, Drake is eligible to be closed at the end of the school year. It’s less than 40 percent full by the district’s standards. It’s on academic probation and the 52-year-old building is expensive to maintain.

The cash-strapped school district wants to close schools like Drake, not because it will save a lot of money, but because they won’t have to spread resources – including teachers – across all these “half-empty” schools. School officials have said that for safety reasons, it will not close high schools if they can help it.

For these small schools, Warner and principals like her all across CPS are faced with a puzzle every year because funding is based on enrollment and “it’s not funded based off of one teacher per grade level anymore,” Warner tells me.

Instead, the district uses a complicated formula to calculate how many teachers a school needs. And often, schools with smaller enrollments, like Drake, don’t get a teacher for every grade.

“ As far as kindergarten, a half-time position from the board, and I use school funds to pay for the other half so it’s a full-day kindergarten,” Warner said.

For grades first, second and third, Drake gets just two teachers, so Warner had to decide whether to buy another teacher with her own funds, or combine grades in one classroom. This year, Drake has two classrooms with mixed grades.

The 2nd and 3rd grade room has 32 kids and it’s packed – you can tell when you walk in.

Over the sound of students' chatter, the teacher says, “I like how the students at table one are continuing with their assignment.”

Both of the split classes are taught by veteran teachers. Liliana Logli teaches the 1st-2nd grade split.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Logli said. “It fluctuates. At the beginning of the year, I think I had 38 and now I’m down to 33 or 34. I’ve gotten the hang of it, because I’ve been doing it for several years now, but it definitely is a challenge because you have to teach two different curriculums in reading, in math.”

This is partly why CPS officials say school closings are necessary. If Drake had twice as many students it wouldn’t have to combine grades, especially in the early years when research shows small class sizes are more important.

District officials say schools that are under enrolled are also more likely to have crowded classrooms – and not just by a few kids. They’re more likely to be over the district’s class size limit by more than a few students.

In many ways, Drake is a good example why the district wants to close and consolidate schools – there simply aren’t as many school-aged children in Bronzeville anymore.

Drake used to be surrounded by public housing – the Robert Taylor homes to the south, the Dearborn Homes to the west. Most of them have been torn down or turned into mixed income developments.

“The housing projects gone now, people moving to different places in the city, our enrollment has definitely been affected,” said Logli. “I think we had 700, close to 800 kids when I first started here, and now maybe, what? 250 if we’re lucky.”

But Principal Warner says closing schools could be short-sighted in communities like Bronzeville, where gentrification is still a goal, in spite of recession and the loss of the 2016 Olympics that could have boosted the neighborhood.

“What are the big plans?” Warner said. “Because I heard plans 5-6 years ago about plans to put in more businesses, and have the first floor be businesses and above be residential and if that’s the case, I think there will be a population that will need this school.”

Even though Drake is rated in the lowest performance category at CPS, it has been improving in recent years and Warner says the school’s balance of space and kids contributes to that.

“I really do enjoy having a school under 300 students, our being a family. I can know students by name, know their parents when they walk in the building, I think that establishes really good relationships with parents and students,” Warner said.  “I can actually keep up with them when I’m looking at data, I know who that number, that’s just a percentage on paper, but I know who that child is, to speak to them the next day.”

Of course, having a list of 137 under-used schools doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable. 

On paper, Drake looks a lot like Till Elementary School in the south side Woodlawn neighborhood.

Till is about 40 percent utilized, it’s rated in the lowest category for performance and costs a lot of money to maintain.
But when I visited Till felt completely different than Drake. Every grade had two classrooms of about 25 students. There was both a full-time gym teacher and a full-time librarian.

Principal Charles Asiyanbi said he had to purchase four teachers with his discretionary budget in order to keep his classrooms under 25 students.

“I will mortgage the farm to do that,” Asiyanbi said.

The day I was at Till, four new students enrolled. Asiyanbi said it happens a lot; given how much people move around in the community, he never really knows how many kids he’ll have.

Till has two buildings and both use only a few rooms on their top floors. 

But Asiyanbi says combining the two wouldn’t be ideal.

“I think with the older kids and the younger kids, it needs to be a clear delineation,” Asiyanbi said. “The development process for older kids is totally different.”

Both Warner and Asiyanbi know their schools are on the list of those that could be closed.

Both say they would like to take on more students, but not too many. Both actually use most of what’s considered “extra space” in one way or another – a special education room here, a counselor’s office there.

Both say they hope people at CPS headquarters scrutinize more than what’s on paper.

“Your hope is that when decisions are made, all the criteria is looked at, not just that you’re underutilized, because the adults in the building haven’t been able to control,” Warner said. “If there were more children to get in, we would.”

Meanwhile, Chicago Public Schools is up against a $1 billion deficit.

So even if schools are merged, there’s no guarantee the remaining schools wouldn’t also face budget cuts.