A new report from a two-year-old initiative aimed at shoring up neighborhood high schools calls for a temporary halt to opening or closing new high schools and for a change to budgeting practices so schools with more low-income, immigrant and homeless youth get more dollars.

The report from Generation All wants a pause on opening or closing new schools until there’s a longer-term plan that includes input from the community and takes other citywide planning efforts into account. Generation All is an initiative of The Chicago Community Trust aimed at bolstering neighborhood high schools through fundraising, policy advocacy and community dialogue.

Meanwhile, Chicago Public Schools has released recommendations from its own high school working group — including a proposal, in the works since 2011, to create a single application for all high schools, neighborhood and charter. That plan was supposed to launch in 2013, but stalled in the face of opposition from some charter operators who were reluctant to give up control of the process to the district.

The working group’s report, delayed for weeks as its 32 members tried to reach consensus on the final document, is short on concrete policy recommendations, but also calls for longer-range planning on school openings and closings, as well as support for neighborhood high schools, such as capital dollars and rebranding efforts.

A major sticking point, working group members said, was deciding what to do with the district’s many under-enrolled neighborhood high schools, which have been losing students because of population shifts as well as charter expansion.

The working group stopped short of recommending closures or consolidations, though they were discussed, and some members think they are unavoidable. Instead, the recommendations say that “determining the minimum number of students a school needs to sustain essential services is a challenging, multi-faceted question, one which cannot be explored without working with individual schools and communities.”

Robin Steans, the former head of Advance Illinois and co-chair of the working group, says there “are no easy answers to the mismatch between the number of high school seats and students. That means we’re going to need space to have honest conversations about how to address the problem. My hope is that… CPS will continue to reach out and involve those most directly affected.”

Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson says the district will incorporate many of the working group’s recommendations into its high school strategy, which will be finalized later this school year. That strategy will eventually lead to policy changes, Jackson says, but not immediately. The district will continue its moratorium on closing schools through 2018.

“Community engagement is a priority” she says. “We don’t want to put the cart before the horse.”

The two reports come at a time when high schools are front-and-center in CPS. Controversy continues over the construction of a new North Side selective-enrollment high school, originally slated to be called Obama College Prep, that Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed be built with $60 million in tax-increment financing.

Earlier this week, the new head of the City Council Education Committee, Ald. Howard Brookins of the 21st Ward on the Far South Side, began his tenure by telling the Sun-Times: “If we don’t have the money, and there’s no demonstrated need for the school, it shouldn’t be built.” (He later rolled back his position and said he was told the money is available.)

And after last year’s hunger strike, the revitalized Dyett High School is scheduled to open this fall with a class of 150 freshmen, who will come from the neighborhood and throughout the city. Though there have been concerns about attracting enough students to the school, which was phased out due to low enrollment and poor academic performance, Chicago magazine reports 500 students applied.

“Unequal playing field”

District officials also will be briefed on the sweeping report released Wednesday by Generation All. Echoing a refrain commonly heard among grassroots and community activists, the report argues that school choice — which in Chicago has meant mostly an expansion of charter schools — has diverted resources from neighborhood high schools and put them, and the mostly low-income students of color who attend them, “on an unequal playing field.”

The report also calls for better links between neighborhood high schools and community groups, businesses and residents to help bolster these schools. And Generation All wants to move away from student-based budgeting so that neighborhood schools get more funding to help low-income and other high-needs students.

Beatriz Ponce de Léon, Generation All’s executive director, who also sat on the district’s high school working group, says that during focus groups her organization repeatedly heard concerns about the district’s “haphazard” approach to opening and closing schools.

“We can’t say we know as a city where we need schools,” she says.

While closing or consolidating high schools shouldn’t be off the table, she doesn’t think enrollment or population size should be the deciding factors. In some communities, a neighborhood high school with 250 or fewer students might still be needed, she says, because closing it would further destabilize the area.

As for the single application, members of the working group say CPS officials pushed them to recommend it for the 2017-18 school year. The district first committed to centralizing its enrollment in 2011, when it signed on to a compact initiated by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Supporters say it will make the onerous high school application process easier for families — eliminating multiple forms and deadlines — and provide better data about where students are applying.

Other districts with centralized enrollment, such as New York City, have completely revamped the process. Under New York’s system, incoming 9th graders rank up to 12 high schools and a computer matches them up with a school. When there’s more applicants than slots, a random lottery is conducted so students can’t hold seats at multiple top-tier schools as they make their decisions.

Kalyn Belsha

Kalyn is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at kbelsha@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter @kalynbelsha.

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