While one new Chicago Public Schools policy will send more transfer students to some overcrowded schools, another could help improve the school climate at others.

In December, a federal judge told Chicago Public Schools to find space for minority students who wanted to transfer to largely white schools under the federal desegregation consent decree. More than half of those schools are considered overcrowded, so the district instituted a new policy that will require schools to open up classrooms in modular units and leased buildings, which are considered temporary space and had been off-limits for adding more students.

Principals were asked to examine every class conducted in temporary space and find open seats in classrooms with fewer students than the class-size caps in the union contract.

“We’ve got to count temporary space, because that’s where classes are being held,” says Giacomo Mancuso, a consultant to CPS who retired as director of school demographics and planning earlier this year.

The district will continue to use temporary space for desegregation transfers and transfers under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Meanwhile, changes in how CPS calculates school capacity will ease the way for overcrowded schools to improve the learning environment.

For one, classes at overcrowded schools will no longer be expected to hold up to 40 students. The district dropped the room-size category “above average,” used to designate larger classrooms that could be expected to hold that many students.

Educationally, 40 students in a class does not work, Mancuso acknowledges.

Second, the district will allow principals to set aside more space for disabled students who need a wheelchair or other assistive device, or a smaller teacher-student ratio. One result: Fewer desegregation transfer seats were made available at high-achieving Bell Elementary, which has a significant program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Overall, CPS relies on principals to report details that will determine their school’s capacity. Each year, principals report the number of rooms in their building, the intended purpose of each room (office or classroom) and how it is actually being used.

Schools are not required to count gyms, libraries, and some multipurpose rooms as potential classrooms if the school is overcrowded. But rooms used solely for art, music, technology and special services like bilingual and special education run the risk of being commandeered for regular classes.

Principals say this is a mistake that can hamper good teaching. “They want you to have computer labs but they count that as a classroom,” says Joyce Jager, principal of Eberhart Elementary in Chicago Lawn. Eberhart, an overcrowded school, has only one shared room for art and music, so teachers for those subjects have to travel between classrooms to find space.

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.

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