The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
Southwest, Northwest: Two sides of overcrowding
The Southwest and Northwest sides of town are two examples of the dilemmas the district has faced as it tried to accurately predict shifting enrollment and plan construction in the face of shrinking capital funds.
Ten years ago, four Southwest Side communities—McKinley Park, Gage Park, Chicago Lawn and Brighton Park—were heavily overcrowded. Each neighborhood received higher-than-average capital spending on new schools and additions, and the severity of overcrowding decreased even though enrollment went up.
But only McKinley Park received enough new construction to accommodate the growing number of students and fall below the official overcrowding threshold, thanks in large part to a new, bigger Greene Elementary. Today, the other three communities are still coping with substantial overcrowding.
Meanwhile, other Southwest Side neighborhoods received much less money, even though their enrollments were on the rise.
West Lawn, for example, received less than $2,000 per pupil in capital spending but saw enrollment increase by 1,499 students while the number of classroom seats in the neighborhood increased by only 652. One neighborhood school, Lee Elementary, had an annex built in 1996 but outgrew it instantly, says Principal Marjorie Joy.
"I've gone to the board. I know there's no money. The state has to step up to the plate," Joy says. But it's very frustrating when you see beautiful new schools [in other neighborhoods]. I was hoping by now we would certainly see another addition."
On the opposite side of town, Northwest Side neighborhoods were becoming newly overcrowded at a time when capital funds were drying up.
Since 1995, six communities on the far Northwest Side have become overcrowded: Dunning, Edison Park, Forest Glen, Jefferson Park, North Park and O'Hare. Only Jefferson Park, which saw enrollment increase from 1,116 to 1,539, received any capital funds for construction relief, suggesting that CPS did not foresee the extent of the problem.
Jefferson Park received $1,500 per pupil, but that amount is less than half of the $3,300 per-pupil average citywide.
"CPS did not have the mindset or plan to relieve the overcrowding," charges Catherine Bushbacher, principal of another Northwest Side school, Reinberg Elementary in Belmont-Cragin. Reinberg outgrew an annex built in 1996. CPS has since provided only used mobile units to accommodate new students.
"We don't have a lunchroom or science or computer labs," says Bushbacher. Receiving used mobile units is frustrating, she adds. "I do not think that should be the standard."
Former School Board President Gery Chico, who oversaw capital planning in the late 1990s, says the district made a solid effort to target construction where it was needed most. But he acknowledges the district could not anticipate every demographic shift. And, he notes, in a sense the district was a victim of its own success in improving its image. "Many Catholic school children have either decided to come to us on their own or as Catholic schools have closed."
Ultimately, Chico notes, the system did not have enough money to both relieve overcrowding and meet other capital needs.
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