Chicago has a high school with 13 freshmen

Chicago has a high school with 13 freshmen
flickr/KT King
Chicago has a high school with 13 freshmen
flickr/KT King

Chicago has a high school with 13 freshmen

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Chicago has a high school with just 13 ninth graders. That’s the entire freshman class: 13.

This isn’t a specialty school, or a school for expelled students, or an alternative school. It’s a regular Chicago public high school. Just 13 freshmen signed up this year to attend Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy High School on the city’s predominantly black West Side.

And Austin Business is not alone.

Two other high schools located inside the same building have enrolled just 20 and 24 freshmen each. Three separate principals oversee the three schools.

Then there’s Hirsch Metropolitan High School on 79th and Ingleside: It has 22 ninth graders.

Chicago International Charter School’s Larry Hawkins campus in Altgeld Gardens registered only 37 freshman.

In all, a dozen high schools across the city have 50 or fewer students in the freshman class. And ninth grade is usually the largest in a high school.

Since WBEZ first wrote about dramatic underenrollment at high schools in 2013, things have only gotten worse. Enrollment at many of the schools is so low, it raises questions of whether they can recover.  

Official district enrollment numbers show Chicago now has 38 high schools with fewer than 400 high schoolers each. That’s fewer students than even advocates of small schools say is needed to provide a solid education. Under the district’s student-based budgeting, the numbers in some cases are not enough to pay for the principal and a full set of teachers.

And there’s another fallout: running such small schools is tremendously inefficient, costing taxpayers and the district extra at a time when Chicago Public Schools is seeking help from Springfield just to get through the year without massive layoffs.

Long-time neighborhood schools

The city’s withering high schools include institutions that have educated generations of Chicagoans and have been seen as community pillars: Bowen, Collins, Corliss, Fenger, Harper, Hirsch, Manley, Richards, Robeson, Tilden—all are teetering. But it isn’t just neighborhood schools. Some charter schools and high schools that draw from the entire city find themselves in a similar bind, struggling to recruit students in an environment in which CPS has continued to rapidly open additional high schools in an effort to improve school quality—even though enrollment is not growing.

Nearly all schools with dramatically declining enrollment have one thing in common: they serve predominantly African American students on the city’s South and West sides. Their students are some of the poorest, most vulnerable in the city.

The racial disparity raises questions about how school choice plays out in a segregated city, and whether neighborhood schools—particularly in low-income African American neighborhoods—are viable in Chicago’s current school choice environment.

“The fact that we have schools where they are only enrolling 13 freshmen is really part of this ideology of configuring public education in a kind of market model,” said Mary Pattillo, a sociologist at Northwestern University who authored a study on how families are participating in Chicago’s system of school choice.

Pattillo says schools that don’t capture parents, don’t market themselves, or don’t attract students— “they’ll just die. But while those schools are dying, there are students in those schools dying with those schools,” Pattillo said. “And the inability of those schools to provide a high-quality education despite their high desire to do so is not acceptable.”

Peter Cunningham sees benefits in a more market-driven system. Cunningham is the executive director of the national education reform group Education Post and was spokesman under Arne Duncan, who launched the city’s Renaissance 2010 initiative—which opened more than 100 new schools —and closed others—in an effort to improve education in Chicago. “There is a consequence to choice,” says Cunningham. “You’re going to have schools that are losing enrollment either because kids don’t want to go there or they’re not providing the kind of education kids want.”

Cunningham says that without Chicago’s plethora of high school options, there might be better enrollment in the neighborhood high schools, but “it’s also possible that we would have lost a whole lot of families who would have chosen private schools or moved out of the city.” Still, he admits, “We can’t afford to have more schools than we have students.”

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner declined to answer questions about high school under-enrollment and would not say whether the city should brace for massive school closures at the high school level. She also would not authorize principals from under-enrolled schools to speak.

High schools dying a slow death

A massive expansion in the number of high schools in the city—opened in an effort to create high quality schools and expand options for students—has contributed to the under-enrollment crisis being faced  today by many schools.

In 2004, Chicago had 88 high schools and 99,275 high schoolers. Today the city has 140 high schools (a 59 percent increase) for 100,670 students in grades 9-12 (a 1.5 percent increase). That’s not counting alternative students or schools, which have also expanded exponentially.

With each new high school that opens, other schools in the system face enrollment declines. A dozen recently opened high schools added grades and students this year and are slated to continue expanding. In September, CPS agreed to re-open Dyett High School following a hunger strike protesting the its closure. And on Wednesday, the school board will vote on whether to green light another new charter high, set to open in the fall.

At the same time, fully one-third of the city’s high schools are withering.

Under Chicago’s school choice system—students can go to high school anywhere they’re accepted, including other neighborhood schools. This year, 14 percent of Chicago’s 100,670 high schoolers go to a selective enrollment school they test into, including nearly all the city’s highest performing students. Another 24 percent go to charter schools. Numbers from prior years suggest about 30 percent of students go to their attendance-area neighborhood school, and the rest go to magnet, military or other neighborhood schools—which might offer arts, IB, career-education or STEM programs. For low performers, neighborhood schools offer something that’s increasingly difficult to find: a high school kids can enroll in without having to apply months in advance or meet a minimum threshold for grades or test scores.

Varied reasons for declining enrollment

CPS officials have frequently cited declining enrollment in the black community as a reason for the low enrollment numbers, but that is not always the case.

In Hirsch High School’s attendance boundary, for instance, the number of CPS high school students living within the boundary has remained constant for the past eight years. But in Chicago’s choice environment, 95 percent of Hirsch-area students go to selective, charter or other neighborhood schools; just 5 percent choose Hirsch.

At Tilden Career Academy at 48th and Union, the number of high school students living in the attendance area has actually increased, but enrollment at the school has tanked, despite new leadership that has brought in a digital media program and other partnerships. Tilden is even being featured as a demonstration school by the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success  Still, every day, just 311 students arrive at a school built for 2,000. The percentage of in-area students who choose to attend Tilden has dropped to just 8 percent, from 28 percent a decade ago.

In other cases, the dying schools have no neighborhood attendance boundary at all and could draw students from anywhere in the city, but many are located in tough neighborhoods and have never attracted enough students to thrive. That’s the case with Austin Business, the high school with 13 freshmen.

Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy in Chicago. (Google Maps)

Now, the three schools located in what used to be Austin Community High School— created just a decade ago and sold as improvements over the low-performing school they replaced—are considering a plan to merge into one again and re-establish their neighborhood boundary.

Declining enrollment can put schools in a downward spiral. Enrollment drops mean lower budgets and  cuts. As programs disappear, fewer students want to enroll.

According to CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson, CPS has had to prop up some schools with fewer than 270 students this year, giving them extra money so they can offer a complete set of courses. The district could not say how much it has spent on such support.

Paul Hill, a University of Washington professor who devised the portfolio school choice model Chicago is following, has said that if schools have so few students they need extra money to keep going, “you’ve got too many schools.”

Tilden principal Maurice Swinney says the small size absolutely affects what clubs and activities a school can offer. Tilden had no varsity football team this year. It disbanded mid-season last year after losing every game; the few boys on the roster played both offense and defense.

“None of us at Tilden want to give kids any less of an experience than they would get” at a bigger school with better funding, Swinney says. But, “you have to have uniforms, you have to have equipment, you have to have Gatorade—you have to have all those things if you’re going to have a program. I know if I were a kid I wouldn’t want the old uniforms at some point.”

But Swinney says the problem is not only that high schools are under-enrolled—it’s that Chicago’s small schools enroll kids who tend to be the most vulnerable in the system:  “students who’ve dealt with lots of trauma, you have lots of struggles.” At Tilden, 39.5 percent of kids are classified as special education students.

“If we create selective enrollments and charter schools and other places that I feel like don’t accept the most vulnerable children, I think the moral responsibility for any city is to support those that do—in a way that helps those schools flourish in terms of their academic, social, and behavioral outcomes,” says Swinney. “There’s this level of neglect for the most vulnerable children, and it’s offensive and it’s insulting.”

Small schools see gains

Lisa Barrow, a senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago who has studied the effect of school size, said high schools that are intentionally designed to be small improve academic outcomes for students. Recent studies have deemed New York City’s small high schools a success. Many were created around the same time Chicago’s were, as an effort to expand options for students and increase quality.

But Barrow says large high schools that see withering enrollment are not likely to have the same benefits as intentionally designed small schools that spend time carefully planning their curriculum, hiring, and programming for their particular size, usually 400-600 students.

John Horan, founder and executive director of North Lawndale College Prep, does not consider the two campuses he oversees as “withering”—even though both have enrollments that hover around 400 and the district would allow him to enroll at least 200 more students.

He says population loss in the black community on the West Side is making enrollment more difficult. But he feels his schools are about the right size.

“Our budget office would like a higher number,” he said. “Our teachers would like a lower number.”

Barrow says part of school size does come down to money.

“If you have to hire five teachers to teach 25 kids five subjects, you can’t afford to do that.”  

Linda Lutton and Becky Vevea are WBEZ education reporters. Follow them @WBEZeducation.