Alarms Raised Over Possibility Of Capping Enrollment At Top Chicago Schools

controlled enrollment
Lincoln Elementary in Lincoln Park is one of three high-achieving North Side elementary schools where Chicago Public Schools officials are considering capping enrollment to deal with the threat of overcrowding. Andrew Gill / WBEZ
controlled enrollment
Lincoln Elementary in Lincoln Park is one of three high-achieving North Side elementary schools where Chicago Public Schools officials are considering capping enrollment to deal with the threat of overcrowding. Andrew Gill / WBEZ

Alarms Raised Over Possibility Of Capping Enrollment At Top Chicago Schools

Parents at three North Side Chicago schools are expressing alarm after Chicago Public Schools officials floated the idea of limiting enrollment at their high-achieving, mostly white and affluent neighborhood schools, which are on the verge of being overcrowded.

District officials are talking about using something called controlled enrollment, which caps enrollment at a school’s capacity and then sends other students from the attendance boundary who don’t get a seat to other schools. Chicago has used controlled enrollment in the past and other cities, such as New York and Boston, still use it.

The three North Side elementary schools are Audubon in Roscoe Village, Lincoln in Lincoln Park and Burley in Lakeview.

If the school district starts using this approach, it would be a drastic change from the past two decades when it built expensive annexes or new schools to deal with overcrowding. The school district could use controlled enrollment to promote integration by sending the mostly white students from the overcrowded schools to under-enrolled nearby ones that serve mostly black or Latino students.

However, they could also set aside space for overflow students in nearby magnet schools. That might end up making those magnet schools more white and affluent.

A decision to stop guaranteeing students a seat in their neighborhood school would be controversial. The schools where it’s under consideration are highly-sought after. Parents buy houses within the attendance boundary to guarantee seats for their children.

District officials talked to the local school councils at Audubon and Lincoln about their demographics and possible solutions. The Burley Local School Council was supposed to host a presentation on Wednesday, but it was cancelled.

Still, many parents and community members who were aware of the possibility of moving to controlled enrollment came to the LSC meeting to express concern.

School district officials stress that no policy proposals have been formulated or decisions made. They say no changes will be proposed or made for the upcoming school year. Officials say these discussions have been “informally soliciting feedback on potential solutions.”

But even the suggestion of a change has caused a stir in the three school communities and raised lots of questions. Exactly how controlled enrollment might work in Chicago is uncertain.

The school district has an existing controlled enrollment policy, but it is 15 years old. It requires schools to try a number of outdated approaches to dealing with overcrowding, including having groups of students attend schools at different times of the year or day, before moving to controlled enrollment.

The old policy didn’t spell out how controlled enrollment was to be implemented, but in the past some students at overcrowded schools were involuntarily bused to schools with space. The vast majority of those schools served mostly Latino students. Sometime in the mid-2000s, CPS stopped using controlled enrollment.

CPS would have to approve a new controlled enrollment policy before implementing it. And district officials aren’t saying how a new controlled enrollment policy might work. But parents who heard CPS’ presentation said officials said all students would have to apply for kindergarten at their neighborhood school and then be entered into a lottery for a seat. Parents also would be asked to list preferences for other schools in the area.

If the child does not win a seat, the school district would place them in a ranked school, according to the parents who attended the presentation.

Lincoln, Audubon and Burley are at about 100% capacity, according to CPS’ 2019 space utilization data. The concern is that lower grades at those schools have a lot more students than the upper grades.

Former Burley parent Lisabeth Weiner came to the Chicago Board of Education meeting on Wednesday to ask the school district to work with community members before making any changes to how students are admitted to the school. When her children attended Burley years ago, she said it was not sought after. But she said it was built up over time.

She doesn’t think parents and community members should now be punished by losing access to the school.

“We are concerned that any effort to make Burley exclusive will only serve to harm our children, disrupt families, introduce uncertainty where none is needed and divide our community,” Weiner said.

Lisa Barrow, an LSC member at Lincoln, said people at her school were also up in arms. She said other parents were upset because they moved to the neighborhood just for the school.

“I would say it was not a popular idea,” she said.

She also said residents nearby noted that they deal with the traffic from the large school and would be upset if they don’t reap the benefits, either because their children couldn’t attend or they wouldn’t get the property value from being in the Lincoln boundary.

Barrow, who has older children, said she would worry about how the school district would make sure that all eligible families apply for a seat.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.