The Trib’s Jennifer Smith Richards and Juan Perez, Jr have written a powerful two-part series on the plight of 17 neighborhood high schools that have all but emptied out over the past few years. Their report, titled Chicago’s Shrinking Schools, can be found at the Chicago Tribune site. The series asks, “can these Chicago High Schools Survive?”
Falling victim to city-wide enrollment declines and vastly increased options for different, often smaller, high school experiences, there are serious questions as to whether Chicago still needs, or can afford, these large, old buildings. But there are also questions about whether small high schools can support diverse course offerings and robust after-school and extracurricular activities.
Juan Perez, Jr returns to Chicago Newsroom for this discussion about their series.
“For starters,’ he says, “the high schools that we examined, we decided to limit our examinations straight up to neighborhood high schools, those that have assigned boundaries that are open to anybody who lives within them, and frankly anybody else from anywhere else in the City… That allowed us to just get a sense right away of okay, this has been a perennial question with us, how well are they attracting students who live within their neighborhood boundaries?”
And, he continues, “How many of the students who live within their neighborhood boundaries are leaving? Those are two questions, and then the big one that we always wanted to answer was, when they leave where do they go?”
It’s very important to understand that the emptying out of these historic schools isn’t because of the overall drop in enrollment citywide. Here’s what Perez, Jr and Smith Richards wrote in their Tribune series:
“It might be easy to assume that these high schools are shrinking because the surrounding neighborhoods are hollowing out. That’s not true. There were roughly 2,700 high school students living in Gage Park High School’s attendance boundary on the southwest side last year. CPS says the school can comfortably educate 1,100. There’s 330 there now. Most of the other eligible students enrolled in 153 other CPS high schools.”
Parents and students are voting with their feet, or, more realistically, with their cars and the CTA. They found lots of families enduring 2-hour commutes each way to get to another high school but often he new school isn’t that far away.
What’s driving this exodus? It might be a perception of safety or a special program, Perez, Jr explains. Or maybe the students were outright recruited. “You see high schools going into neighborhoods and trying to establish relationships with feeder elementary schools in this kind of Hunger Games kind of environment for students.”
“I mean just look at the trend lines for overall population within CPS over the course of the past ten years and a drop of 40,000 students,” he continues. “And then think about how during the same period you’ve constructed or opened or just made available, new options, new programs and new options for families to choose from. I mean do the math, right? What results there?
Dr. Janice Jackson, the newly appointed CEO of the school system who was until this week the academic head, has made it clear that wherever she can find opportunities to expand choice for parents she will, according to Perez, Jr. “But again,” he wonders, “The big question is what do you do? There are consequences to this. And there are consequences that tend to affect black and brown children more than they do other children within the City of Chicago.”
Juan Perez, Jr tells us that CPS doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive plan for either saving or disposing of these neighborhood high schools, which range from Fenger on the far south side to Kelvyn Park on the northwest side. He calls these schools “almost a spiritual embodiment of the idea that traditional neighborhood high school holds as, well, as it’s like your church, it’s like your bank, it’s like the grocery store. It’s an anchor of the neighborhood. At least that’s how it was traditionally conceivedHollowed out neighborhood high schools. It’s part of the social fabric and glue that brings it together. And yet, in the case of these 17 buildings we found that that concept has been completely turned around on its head.”
Of course, there is a plan – publicly announced – to close four high schools, all in the Englewood area, and replace hem with a new, $85 million high school to replace the soon-to-be demolished Robeson High. But the plan is under fire from local residents because the new school will open a least a year after the other schools close, with no clear plan for what to do with the displaced students during the construction period.
Added to that, the new CPS comprehensive application process rolls out this year for every student moving into high school. It will be what Perez, Jr calls “a centralized repository to handle the dizzying array of applications that you had for selectives or whatever else. If you still want to attend your neighborhood school you will still be able to attend your neighborhood school, but I’m curious to see how those buildings will fare in all of this.”