To help cut costs, Chicago Public Schools is looking to scale back controlled enrollment busing from overcrowded schools.
About 30 elementary schools and five high schools have a controlled enrollment policy, under which overflow students who would normally attend a severely overcrowded school are bused to other schools with space. (CPS officials expect the high schools—Morgan Park, Gage Park, Foreman, Steinmetz and Hubbard—to scrap the policy by 2006-07.)
A year ago, the district enacted a policy prohibiting any additional elementary schools from adopting controlled enrollment unless the school has failed to alleviate overcrowding with year-round, four-track scheduling. With four-track scheduling, students are placed on one of four rotating schedules, which CPS officials say can increase a school’s capacity by 25 percent because one-quarter of students are on vacation at any given time.
The district is also trying to prod schools that already have controlled enrollment to switch to a four-track schedule instead—with limited success.
Two schools, Cuffe in Auburn-Gresham and Pasteur in West Elsdon, will adopt the schedule starting this fall. But strong opposition forced CPS to back down in two other instances.
James Dispensa, director of school demographics and planning for CPS, says there is no specific timetable for moving schools off controlled enrollment. The district will decide which schools to focus on following the next round of enrollment forecasts, expected to be completed by January 2006.
Meanwhile, other measures for overcrowding relief, such as changing grade configurations and shifting attendance boundaries, can also spark controversy.
Brighton Park: overflow ahead
Earlier this spring, about 400 parents from Columbia Explorers Academy at 45th Street and Kedzie Avenue turned up at a School Board meeting to protest against a four-track schedule for the school. Citing the school’s higher-than-average academic performance, the group, along with Principal Jose Barrera, told the board the plan would hurt education.
As a result, the plan was tabled. But Columbia and nearby Sawyer will still have to scrap controlled enrollment next fall under the district’s mandate, and must find some way to absorb returning students.
While Barrera dislikes controlled enrollment, he notes that a bus trip several communities away is still preferable to an overcrowded classroom of up to 40 kids. “We want to serve every child in our community, but we want to serve them in a manner that’s positive,” Barrera says.
Echoing the concerns of other principals at schools that have adopted a four-track schedule, Barrera says doing so often creates child-care problems for families if siblings are not on the same schedule. Many parents work two jobs, he says, making it difficult to get babysitters for short periods during the year, especially for odd hours.
And some parents are already overscheduled because they’re trying to further their own education through GED or ESL classes, he adds. “You disrupt whatever future they have.”
So far, Barrera is unsure how many students Columbia will have to absorb next fall. About 100 families received letters informing them their children could return, but only 35 have replied. And while he hopes the private sector will help him find additional space to lease that would not require much renovation, CPS has not given him any assurance the district will pay any new leasing costs. “None, whatsoever,” Barrera says.
At Sawyer, where 200 or more students could return next year, Principal Gerard Gliege says he may have to create classrooms in the gymnasium and other feasible space.
Gliege also dislikes controlled enrollment, but notes one advantage: Having class sizes capped at levels mandated by the teachers’ union contract. Without controlled enrollment, he says. “It’s quite conceivable we would have 40 kids in the classroom.”
That could happen this coming fall, Gliege says, at least temporarily. “I am trying to make sure the staff understands that,” he says.
Money to hire extra teachers won’t be available until enrollment is finalized on the 20th day of the school year, he explains. But the highest-caliber teachers “are not going to wait until October to find out if they have a job. You can imagine who’s left by then,” Gliege says, adding that existing teachers might well jump ship at the prospect of the bumpy start to the year.
He also points out the need for additional desks, chairs, computers and other items—and the lack of money for them in his current budget.
Gliege personally persuaded the board to drop the four-track plan, and says he balked at it after discovering that many schools on the schedule posted low test scores. While working in the 1970’s at a school that had adopted a four-track schedule, Gliege became convinced the approach hampers learning because of the frequent breaks during the year.
But, says Giacomo Mancuso, a consultant who retired earlier this year as director of school demographics and planning, “Which is ultimately better? For kids to be bused across the city?”
Logan Square: Uproar over busing
Parents and the local school council at Monroe Elementary, clashed with the board in the spring over a plan to relieve overcrowding by switching the school to a K-6 grade configuration, then busing 7th- and 8th-graders to Marshall Middle School. The board ended up tabling the idea. (While CPS is trying to cut busing costs, Dispensa notes that students would likely have to be bused elsewhere under any scenario. “It was a tradeoff,” he says. “If it’s going to occur, better that it be the older kids.”)
“The neighborhood was upset, outraged,” says Miguel Sotomayor, chair of the Monroe local school council. Although Marshall is only about two miles away, parents had several reasons for opposing the idea. For one, 7th- and 8th-graders would no longer be able to walk younger siblings home from school. Two, Marshall had no gifted program or band program, both of which Monroe offers. And 7th- and 8th-graders would no longer be eligible to attend activities at Monroe’s after-school community center, which is funded by a grant that specifically limits activities to Monroe students.
The board and the community talked about changing Monroe’s attendance boundaries, which the community did not oppose. “Some of the students who attend Monroe are actually closer to other schools,” Sotomayor points out.
But that boundary change has also been shelved, at least for now, because of a drop in enrollment.
Some 400 students were being bused from Monroe three years ago, but enrollment has since dropped from about 1,300 to 1,150, and only about 225 students are now bused elsewhere.
Overcrowding is not expected to change much this fall. The school sent out letters to at least 150 parents inviting their children to return to Monroe. But according to Sotomayor, only 88 families have responded.
“A lot of letters came back,” he says. “Other parents said they will keep their kids at other schools even if they lose busing. The idea was that the school would send out letters, the floodgates would open and all these kids would come back. And it hasn’t happened.”
Anita Caballero, a school bus driver and president of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, says parents in her community will likely oppose ending controlled enrollment since children will no longer have transportation to schools they have attended for years.
“Parents aren’t going to trust these kids to go somewhere else,” she says. “And parents who do not have transportation, what are they going to do? Most of the families in our neighborhood have very low incomes. They cannot afford to pay for a bus or pay for a car.”
Caballero and others note that more money for new schools is the only real, although unlikely, answer.
“I’d rather have them build a school in the neighborhood and keep all the children where they belong,” she says. “But I know it’s totally impossible.”
Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher contributed to this report
Ed Finkel is a Chicago-based writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.