Updated 6:15 p.m.
Chicago Public Schools considers only 34 of its more than 500 schools overcrowded, a 60 percent reduction since the state started requiring the school district to publish such data in 2012.
The district published new numbers late last week, in time to meet the state deadline. So-called space utilization data is controversial because is has been used to justify closing schools.
With Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel not running for re-election, it remains to be seen whether the next mayor will close empty schools, change the formula for what determines how fully a school is used, or take a different approach all together.
One persistent complaint about the formula is that it considers 30 students to a classroom as standard. This, critics say, is way too many. It leads to schools with small class sizes, perhaps ideal for education, being seen as underutilized. Meanwhile, others with full classes are seen as efficient, even though students may not be getting the attention they need.
In 2012-2013, 81 schools were considered too full.
This year’s 34 schools considered overcrowded include some that already have plans for easing overcrowding. Also, several are test-in schools with controlled enrollment, where principals are choosing to let in additional students.
Some of the decrease in the number of overcrowded schools can be attributed to an overall decline in students across the entire school system. But it is also due to nearly $700 million of district spending for additions and new construction specifically to relieve overcrowding.
Marguerite Baran, with the Local School Council at Hitch Elementary in Jefferson Park, said a modular classroom unit has made a big difference. Back when her oldest son started kindergarten at the school, there was no room for services like speech therapy or for special education teachers to work one-on-one or in small groups with students.
“That was all being done in hallways with partitions at the end of the halls,” she said. She said there also was no room for health classes for students.
Now, she said every class and service has a space of its own. But still, she said some parents in her Northwest Side neighborhood think the school is overcrowded.
She said many of them would like to see class sizes reduced. But she notes that would not only require more space, but also more money for teachers.
School district officials say they use 30 students to a class in the formula because it coincides with the teacher’s contract. The Chicago Teachers Union contract sets maximum class size standards at between 28 and 32 students, depending on the grade.
The teachers union has pushed for lower standards, but the school district has resisted the expense such changes would incur.
At the same time overcrowding has been reduced, Emanuel is leaving his predecessor to grapple with schools that have very few students. Some 46 percent of the school district’s 531 schools are considered underutilized, according to the district’s data. That’s only slightly less than in 2012-2013, the year before Emanuel closed 50 schools.
Some situations are especially severe. Twenty-five schools have space for 1,000 or more students, according to the school district.
Most are neighborhood high schools that have been drained of students as the school district opened up more schools, amid declining enrollment.
For these underused schools, the inefficient use of space is only partly the issue. Many of them have only a couple hundred students and, because of the way schools are funded, are not able to offer students a robust curriculum.
This year, the school district did not close any district-run schools, though two privately run, publicly funded charters are being shuttered for poor performance. CPS CEO Janice Jackson has pledged not to do any mass closings of schools. It remains to be seen if she will keep her job under the next administration.