Chicago Public Schools runs 87 high schools, most of them of the “neighborhood” variety. But 50 of them are under-enrolled, and 35 are less than 50% full. Some have only a tiny fraction of the 2,000 or so students for whom their school was built.
What to do with the neighborhood high school?
It’s a topic thoughtfully researched by Kate Grossman in her latest piece for the Atlantic, titled “Reviving the Hollowed Out High School“. Grossman surveys the heroic effort to bring Austin High back to life over nearly 20 years, but finds a school that’s fighting demography, economics and, perhaps most of all, the perception that it’s a dangerous place in a dangerous neighborhood.
Within Austin’s attendance boundaries, almost no eighth-graders who would normally attend the school elected to do so. “They only had 14% of the 8th graders in the attendance boundary going to either the Austin building or Douglas High school, which was the other neighborhood high school, and the rest are just scattering.” Grossman explains. “I mean they went to 90 different high schools.”
These students opted for selective enrollment schools, magnets, other neighborhood schools and charters. Their families decided that the inconvenience of long bus or car rides every day was balanced out by what they considered a better education elsewhere.
Every under-enrolled school has its own story, of course, but there’s one thing they all have in common. Chicago’s aggressive choice system, which has increased the number of high schools from 86 in 2000 to 140 today, has pushed the old general high schools to the back of the pack.
But, Grossman reports, there is a movement in some communities to rally around the old schools, and re-shape them for today’s needs.
“So schools like Lake View and Amundsen and Washington High School and there’s some others, there’s this movement to try to embrace them again,” she tells us. “And so there you’re going to have more of the normal cross-section of high achieving kids, middle kids and lower kids.”
This new energy is being sparked in some more affluent neighborhoods and in some Latino communities, she says, because parents want a solid, safe alternative to the elite schools. “And they’ve had some nice success because there’s a need for it, because not everyone can get into a selective enrollment school and would prosper there even if they got in,” she says.
Chicago now has more high schools than ever, and more choices. But it is rapidly losing the community-based, easily-accessed general high school. Whether that’s good or bad from a city-wide perspective is still unclear, but, in at least some communities, parents are fighting to revive them.
There’s one thing, though, on which Grossman says almost everyone is beginning to agree.
“Just from a number standpoint it makes no sense to be opening any new schools when you can’t fill the schools you already have.”
You can read a transcript of this show as a Word document here:CN transcript April 14 2016