Nearly five years after shuttering a record number of under-enrolled schools, Chicago once again confronts the same stark realities: plummeting enrollment and more than 100 half-empty school buildings, most on the city’s South and West sides, according to a WBEZ analysis of school records.
Chicago Public Schools has lost 32,000 students over the last five years, nearly the same enrollment drop as in the 10-year period leading up to the closures of 50 elementary schools in 2013. Those missing students could fill 53 average-sized Chicago schools.
This massive enrollment decline comes as a self-imposed five-year moratorium on school closings lifts in 2018. Despite that, political observers and CPS insiders said they are not betting on Mayor Rahm Emanuel closing 50 more schools — at least not all at once.
They say if Emanuel opts to close more schools, they hope he does it more slowly and over time. In fact, that’s already underway, despite the moratorium. Since 2013, CPS has quietly shuttered more than a dozen schools, many of them charter schools.
The school system must announce by Dec. 1 any proposed closures for its more than 600 schools. Officials have already indicated they will recommend closing only a handful of schools for next year, the first without the moratorium.
But there’s little doubt CPS faces a major enrollment and utilization problem once again, just five years after the mass closings. A WBEZ analysis of school records found:
- Some 190 Chicago schools have each lost more than 100 students since the closings of 2013.
- Many South and West side neighborhoods, where nearly all the local schools were underutilized in 2013, are in the same situation now.
- The number of under-enrolled school buildings in Chicago remains the same as in 2013, just before closings. In 2015 — the last time CPS generated an underutilized school building list — some 313 CPS schools were considered underutilized. That nearly matches the number just before the mass closings, when 329 schools were considered under-enrolled.
- Since 2015, CPS enrollment dropped by another 25,000 students to 371,000. Among the schools deemed underutilized in 2015, more than 170 have lost at least 30 students. That’s a full classroom of children.
- Even schools that took in students during the 2013 closings have lost children. Forty-one of the city’s 48 so-called “welcoming" schools have lost 40 or more students since 2014; almost 30 schools have lost more than 100.
Even after 50 school closings, Chicago schools still severely under-enrolled
The politics of school closings
The bitter acrimony of the 2013 closings still hangs over the city and its politics.
Earlier this month, the Chicago Teachers Union gathered outside Harper High, an under-enrolled South Side school, to demand that CPS rally behind schools like it rather than close them.
Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, told the group that the mayor and school officials had said in 2013 that children from closed schools were transferring to more vibrant schools. CPS invested new resources in these schools.
“But, what in fact happened, is it destabilized the schools and neighborhood environments, and in fact more people ended up leaving,” Sharkey said, noting the enrollment losses at these "welcoming" schools.
The closings damaged Emanuel politically, especially in hard-hit black communities. It was a major issue in his 2015 race for re-election, when Emanuel became the first sitting mayor to ever face a runoff. The next mayoral election is in 2019.
“There’s no way in hell” the mayor will close large numbers of schools before the election, said Ald. Howard Brookins (21st Ward), who chairs the City Council’s Education Committee. That’s the reality, he said, “despite the fact that there are some schools that need to be closed.”
Through a spokesman, the mayor, who controls the city’s public schools, declined WBEZ’s request for an interview.
Top CPS officials in the last year have been signaling a different approach to school closings through their plans to shutter four Englewood high schools and consolidate them into one newly constructed school.
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said all consolidations should include such a "reinvestment in the community." The school district wants to help parents and community members understand the consequences of under-enrollment, said CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson. She said she hopes to make them allies, rather than adversaries, in the process of deciding the fate of their schools.
Yet, when pressed, Jackson said the school district is ultimately responsible for ensuring no child is left in a poor learning environment. She said some of the city’s severely under-enrolled high schools may have to close.
“Walk through some of these schools with me,” Jackson said at a public forum recently. “It is heartbreaking,”
But the district has contributed to its capacity problems by greenlighting new schools in recent years.
Since 2013, a total of 39 new schools serving 16,000 students have opened, and 29 of them serve high school students. This includes several new charter high schools and 15 alternative high schools for dropouts. Those alternative schools are mostly in neighborhoods with the most severely under-enrolled high schools.
High schools severely under-enrolled
When CPS closed 50 schools in 2013, high schools were spared amid fears that consolidations could spur violence among students forced to cross gang lines.
High schools, then, are among the most underutilized today. Seventeen have fewer than 270 students, a WBEZ analysis shows. That's the bare minimum CPS says it needs to offer basic programming. Most of those schools earned low academic ratings and are in buildings that could fit two to three times the number of students they currently serve.
In 2013, only seven high schools had fewer than 270 students.
Students in these schools often must take online courses in order to graduate and must go without things like full-time gym and art teachers.
“When you leave elementary schools, you think you are going to get this whole new world of people [in high school],” said Asiaha Butler, president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, also known as RAGE. But at the four schools in Englewood on the South Side that are slated to be closed and consolidated into one new school, the freshmen classes are tiny, including one with only 10 students.
One student told Butler she would have chosen to go elsewhere had she known how few students were enrolling.
“You are now confined to 10 people, less classes, no sports,” Butler said, tears rolling down her cheek. “The inequity is so blatant, so in your face.”
Butler said she feels ashamed and angry that so many high schools in her neighborhood are in this condition. She and other activists said CPS encouraged the depopulation of these schools by failing to invest in them properly over the years.
“The obvious fact [is] that our schools were deteriorating, and kids were dying and getting shot and no one came to the rescue,” she said.
Across the city, there are a total of 15 high schools and 12 elementary schools that face a triple threat, WBEZ found. They have less than 300 students, are in half-empty buildings and are poorly rated — a combination of factors that have historically put schools on the chopping block.
Given these realities, a professor who has studied Chicago school closings said the school system will likely need to be reorganized again.
But there’s little appetite for a repeat of 2013, she said.
“Let’s hope, though, that CPS has some more creative ideas for how to deal with this problem than just radical surgery,” said Rachel Weber, a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute.
Chicago has a long history of school closings. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley primarily shuttered schools for poor performance, taking more of a slow burn approach to closures. He only nibbled around the edges of the city’s under-enrollment problem, which began with a rapid exodus in the 1970s.
When Emanuel was elected in 2011, he focused on closing under-enrolled schools with poor academic performance. He tried to deal with the long-simmering under-enrollment problem in one fell swoop in 2013.
If Emanuel and CPS leaders intend to take on Chicago’s current under-enrollment problem, they will rely on the school district’s under-enrolled school building list, which is generated using a formula to determine each building's capacity. Neither has been updated since 2015. In the past, the formula was criticized by parents and teachers for not properly accounting for extra rooms for special education classes, which have small numbers of students.
CPS officials said they plan to update school utilization figures next month, and there’s some indication they will change the underlying formula to take this criticism into account.
In determining whether to close a school, CPS also looks at the age of the building, how much money it will take to maintain it and the total number of students in the building.
A new approach to school closings
Since his re-election, Emanuel has tried to distance himself from the closings. But his administration has been experimenting with ways to close schools that could minimize political fallout and community anger.
The district has shut down 19 schools since 2013, despite the moratorium. About half were charter schools that lost their contracts due to poor performance or bad financial management. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, were not subject to the moratorium.
Four other schools have been closed for what is called “zero enrollment.” Using this method, CPS stops assigning students to a school. Then, when no students are left, it votes to close the school. This happened in 2016 to Montefiore, a school for students with emotional disabilities, after the school district stopped assigning students there.
It’s also happened in a roundabout way to Ames Middle School in Logan Square. Delia Bonilla, a mother and community activist, said CPS officials insisted the middle school wasn’t closing, but it eventually merged with a school that had been closed due to “zero enrollment.”
Meanwhile, no one from CPS explained what was happening and why, she said.
“There was no communication with parents, students, and teachers,” Bonilla said. There were only conversations behind a “closed door,” she said.
Some advocates of neighborhood schools fear zero enrollment closings could become more frequent in the coming years as CPS moves to a new high school application system. Starting this year, all eighth-graders are applying through a common application. They rank their choices and then are matched with their highest pick.
If no students match with a particular high school, it could have “zero enrollment,” critics said.
The district is also trying to work with communities to merge or close schools. CPS’ Janice Jackson said this strategy is being used in Englewood, where the plan to close four area high schools and consolidate them into one new state-of-the-art school is moving forward.
“The community came together to kind of take destiny into their own hands,” she said. “We need more of that happening in the communities where we continue to see hollowed out schools.”
But Englewood also shows that getting buy-in from communities can be a difficult and perhaps impossible task. While some residents are open to the plan, there is strong resistance.
Tyson Everett, an Englewood resident who serves on a CPS-sponsored community group, said the schools slated to close are lacking the bells and whistles of many other schools. He said he thinks a new building would be a boost for his community.
“Why can’t we have a new top-of-the-line [school] built in Englewood?” he said
But others, including a local alderman and the CTU, are fighting the plan.
Ald. Ray Lopez (15th Ward) called it a “bait and switch” to promise a shiny new school and then tell people, “by the way, we’re closing four of the other schools,” he told WBEZ. In a statement, he also called it a “top-down endeavor ... to tell the community what it needs.”
Shortly before Emanuel was first elected, CPS tried this community-driven approach with little success.
The school district brought together parents and stakeholders to create strategic plans in areas with underutilized schools. But no groups recommended school closures. Instead, they all suggested more investment.