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Low Enrollment Leaves Some Chicago Schools Fighting To Keep Doors Open

The start for Chicago Public Schools this week brought with it a stark reminder that a swath of the city’s high schools are fighting for survival, with some schools drawing astoundingly few students for the first day.

Fewer than 10 freshmen had enrolled by the first day at TEAM Englewood High School, a source told WBEZ. And at Hope High School, just a mile away on the South Side, just 119 students total — or roughly 30 freshmen — were expected, school district officials said.

TEAM and Hope are among four under-enrolled Englewood schools the district has said it wants to shutter. The shockingly low numbers are raising questions among supporters of those schools about whether the district’s announcement has all but closed them early.

These low enrollment numbers come as the city has continued to add high school seats in recent years — through new or expanded charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, and an expansion of seats at test-in schools. At the same, total student enrollment in the district continues to drop. 

The district expects 8,000 fewer students for this school year. The year before, CPS saw a drop of 11,000 students, the largest single-year decline in recent memory.

At Hope High School on Tuesday, parent Raven Mosley was on campus to enroll her 14-year-old son. She hadn’t heard the district wants to shutter the school.

“I was just saying when I walked up — there ain’t no kids in this school,” said Mosley, who chose the school because it’s close to her home. She said she isn’t comfortable sending her son on a city bus to a school farther away. “So I don’t know, we’ll see how this goes.”

Mosley said she knows what low enrollment means for schools: “Each kid brings a certain amount of money, and if you don’t have any kids, you don’t have any money. No funding probably means less education.”

Even larger high schools are feeling the sting of budget cuts brought on by declining enrollment, as students are spread thinner across the district’s high school options.

Before the first bell rang on Tuesday, students from Kelly High School in Brighton Park were outside their Southwest Side school protesting. Kelly is down nearly $2 million and 23 staff members compared to last year. Most of the cuts are due to a projected enrollment decline of 200 students.

Students in the school’s advanced choir group lost their director, just as the school had made it to the top division.

“At this point, cuts are a part of being a CPS student,” said incoming sophomore Jennifer Nava.

Kelly is competing with a brand-new charter high school located six blocks away. The charter school’s construction was funded by billionaire philanthropist and Morningstar founder Joe Mansueto. It is operated with public education funds by the private nonprofit Noble Network of Charter Schools.

“How can you be opening schools down the street when here you’re cutting the budget by millions and letting staff members go?” said Maria Moreno, financial secretary for the Chicago Teachers Union, during Tuesday’s protest. “That makes no sense whatsoever. I mean, that’s like you’re wanting to destroy public education.” 

Beatriz Ponce de Leon, executive director of the group Generation All, which is trying to strengthen neighborhood schools, said enrollment declines and their accompanying budget cuts are an unintended consequence of the city adding too many new seats as the city’s overall population is declining.

“You can’t have a high functioning solid school if you have 10 freshmen,” Ponce de Leon said. “And it’s sad that some of our schools are at that point. I think what we recognize, though, is that they didn’t get there accidentally.”

“Rather than just lament that this is going on, I think we have an opportunity to really fix that,” she added. Ponce de Leon said Chicago needs a citywide plan for its high schools — one developed openly and with neighborhood input. She doesn’t rule out the need to consolidate or close high schools.

The district is planning to spend at least $7 million this year to prop-up under-enrolled schools that wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay for a basic education.

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