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Neighborhoods Lose Children, Schools Lose Students

Chicago Public Schools’ loss of about 11,000 students this year tracks closely with population decline in communities with high crime or poverty.

A WBEZ analysis found enrollment is down at both low- and high-rated schools in those areas.

Overall, 62 of the city’s 77 communities had at least one public school with 20 fewer students this year compared to last year.

Austin, Englewood and Greater Grand Boulevard had the largest decline in students. They also have seen the most population loss.

Austin has nine schools ranked high in CPS’ rating system, which looks at several quality factors such as growth in test scores and attendance. 

On average, those nine schools lost 6 percent of their students, about the same as those in Austin with lower ratings. 

Take Oscar DePriest Elementary School in Austin. 

Just three years ago, the district spent about $500,000 to upgrade the school’s computer lab and get ready for an International Baccalaureate program. 

According to CPS ratings, DePriest remained a high-performing school, but it is now down nearly 70 students to 614. A decade ago, DePriest had nearly 800 students.


Community activist Dwayne Truss said many people are moving to suburbs or even to other states with available housing vouchers. 

“If low income parents can’t find affordable housing in Austin …one of the first things is food clothing and shelter, so education moves down on the priority list,” Truss said.

He said families are also fleeing Austin because of crime, but claimed the schools are not as dangerous as some think. 

Susan Popkin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said a study she did showed poor families often place more value on safety -- both in the neighborhood and in schools -- than other factors.

“They are not looking at test scores or the kind of things that more affluent people look at when looking for elementary schools for their kids,” she said. “So it is a really different choice set and people often are sending their kids to a place that is familiar where they could trust the teachers rather than look around for something they thought would be better academically.”

Popkin said some experts are trying to see if they can get parents to pay more attention to academic factors. 

Truss said neighborhood schools also need to do a better job of letting parents know which schools are performing well. 

Schools in neighborhoods like Austin and Englewood have another challenge: They don’t attract students from far outside their area, even if they are high performing, Truss said. 

“It always has been that 800-pound gorilla in the classroom,” he said. “You are not going to get white parents that are going to send their children to a predominantly African-American school. It is just that reality. It is their right as a parent.” 

But Truss sees one way schools in Austin could get more students. Recently, more Latino families have been moving into the area. Schools in Austin, he said, need to be ready to reach out to these families and make them feel welcome. 

CPS has not been clear about how it plans to deal with underenrollment. In 2013, the district consolidated about 50 elementary schools. 

High schools could be next. In the tentative agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union, the district agreed not to close schools, except in situations where they can’t meet “graduation requirements.”

CPS has not defined “meeting graduation requirements,” but this year two dozen high schools in CPS have fewer than 75 freshmen.

Englewood, West Englewood, Grand Boulevard and Greater Grand Crossing have an additional reason why their CPS population decreased dramatically. In each of these neighborhoods, a charter school moved from being part of the district to under the Illinois Charter School Commission. 

Last year, these charter schools -- Amandla, Bronzeville Lighthouse, Shabazz-Sizemore and Shabazz Academy -- enrolled about 1,400 total students.

Sarah Karp is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @SSKedreporter.

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