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CPS: West, South sides saw biggest drops in number of school-age kids

Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett

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Updated: January 6, 2013 9:48AM



Outside Willa Cather Elementary School Tuesday, parents waiting to collect their children learned to their dismay that Chicago Public School officials consider the facility more than two-thirds empty.

Cather is running at 30 percent capacity, one of 136 schools in the district of 681 buildings considered to be more than half empty, according to a CPS analysis released Tuesday.

“It’s a real nice public school,” Chenette Burkes said as her 6-year-old, Eryka Cunningham, bounced into the minivan, wiggling a loose tooth. “She has a wonderful teacher.”

Cather boasts the district’s top rating after boosting student test scores meeting or exceeding grade level standards from an abysmal 13 percent 10 years ago to 81 percent last year. Burkes even chose to send her older children to charter schools. But her little girl is thriving at the neighborhood school heralded on its website as “small” and “nurturing.”

Closing it down would be criminal, said Burkes. She and her sister, a fellow Cather mom, are ready to act.

“It’s worth saving,” Burkes’ sister Carol Burkes said.

But Cather’s scores may not protect it.

CPS, unlike past years, isn’t considering test scores or other academic progress when choosing which schools should close or consolidate to help close the $1 billion budget deficit expected by summer. The country’s third-largest district is looking first at a building’s capacity.

Fear, confusion and anger swept across Chicago Public Schools as CPS officials released new data indicating half its schools — 330 buildings out of 681 — are “underutilized’’ but refused to say what percent underused put a school on the potential chopping block.

Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education blasted CPS for starting hearings of a newly formed School Utilization Committee without indicating which schools were in danger of closure or consolidation.

In past years, CPS released a list of proposed closures or school shakeups, and then held hearings seeking community input on its plan.

Woestehoff called the hearings “completely bogus” and “ridiculous.” It makes no sense to have them until a proposed target list is produced that people can comment on, she said. Tuesday’s release of data didn’t clear up the confusion, she said.

“We don’t know what schools are in question here. It’s completely ridiculous. It’s no way to build trust. It’s asking people to come out and put themselves on the line for no reason,” Woestehoff said.

“Do people from half the schools [the percent listed as ‘underutilized’] have to come out and defend their schools? Why should they have to do that? .... It’s very disrespectful. People have no opportunity to defend their schools when they don’t even know if their school is in question.”

CPS Communications Chief Becky Carroll emphasized that closures and consolidations will be based on more than utilization. New CPS criteria include a litany of factors some aldermen have criticized as too subjective — such as “school leadership” and “school culture and climate.”

“To try and come up with a cut list based solely on utilization would be misleading,’’ Carroll said in an emailed statement. “The commission is going to launch a rigorous community engagement process to help identify which schools may be recommended as part of a comprehensive plan to right size the District.

“There is no target list. We will release a list of recommendations to the board as part of a comprehensive plan to right size the district after we get the commission’s reports and recommendations.”

Chicago lost approximately 145,000 school-age children between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, CPS said Tuesday, though it gained children in pockets on the Far Northwest Side, edges of the Southwest Side and along the North Side lakefront.

The district, facing a $1 billion budget shortfall by summer, released the census data in making a case for why some schools will need to be closed or consolidated this year.

It “helps us narrow down 681 total schools to a smaller set of schools that may be underutilized or may be overcrowded,” said Adam Anderson, of CPS’ office of Portfolio, Planning and Strategy.

The greatest population declines occurred in West and South Side communities including Austin, Roseland and Englewood.

“CPS faces underutilization and overcrowding in line with these population changes — the location of our facilities does not match where children live,” the district said in a presentation Tuesday.

The utilization rates produced Tuesday showed that even top shelf schools could be in trouble.

Of those schools that were listed as more than half-empty, 8 percent — nearly one in 10 — were top-rated “level 1” schools in terms of academic performance; 21 percent — one in five — were middle-rung “level 2” schools” and nearly two thirds were bottom rung “level 3” schools, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis indicated.

The first line of defense from closure or consolidation for some schools was to attack the utilization numbers released Tuesday.

Noble Street Charter officials pointed to errors in data for two of their campuses labeled “underutilized.” One, Noble Street’s Auburn-Gresham or “Silver” campus, was listed as using only 29 percent of its space — the 14th-worst utilization rate in the system.

That charter campus has an enrollment this year of 257, as listed, but its capacity of 888 will be a reality only after the school finishes ongoing demolition and rehab of the Catholic school building it took over, said Noble Street spokeswoman Rhonda Kochlefl. As a result, she said, right now it only houses freshmen confined to a small annex.

In addition, the CPS database has a column indicating which schools expect to grow by adding grades, but this column was incorrectly left blank at both the Noble Street Auburn-Gresham and Johnson campuses, Kochlefl said.

Schools with some of the worst utilization rates included past targets of closings that won reprieves, a school being phased out a year at a time, schools turned around with new leadership due to academic failure. Some are still adding grades.

Some, however, seemed puzzling.

At Pershing Middle, a “level 2” magnet that decides how many seats to put in a lottery after counting its expected neighborhood kids, Principal Cheryl Watkins disputed Pershing Middle’s listed capacity of 900 and utilization rate of only 27 percent — the 10th worst in the system.

Watkins said from the beginning, Pershing Middle was supposed to share its building with another school, but lost its last partner — the Chicago High School for the Arts — about two years ago.

Despite its coveted magnet status, Pershing Middle’s enrollment is only 240 this year — 40 less than what Watkins said was its original cap of 280. The school for fourth- through eighth-graders lost students in older grades to selective seventh- and eighth-grade problems before school started, Watkins said, but after some Pershing Middle waiting-list kids had already chosen other schools.

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