Ten majority-black high schools in poor Chicago neighborhoods on the south and west sides have less than 400 students, and only about one in 10 teens in the community opts to attend them. [Photo by Ronnie Wachter]

New data show that neighborhood high schools have reached a troubling milestone: Most now enroll only one-fourth of the students living in their attendance areas. District officials have begun to focus on the daunting task of coming up with a comprehensive plan to revitalize schools that have been losing students for many years.

In 2006-2007, half of public high school students attended their neighborhood school and it was unheard-of for even the worst schools to attract just a quarter of the teens in their area. Now, 27 of 46 neighborhood high schools, or nearly two-thirds, enroll fewer than that number. (The district’s other 80+ high schools require applications and admit students based on a lottery, test scores or some other requirement.)

Some neighborhood schools, those with too few students overall, are in an especially precarious situation. Ten majority-black high schools in poor neighborhoods on the South and West sides have less than 400 students, and only about one in 10 teens in the community opts to attend them. Englewood on the South Side and Garfield Park area on the West Side each has a nexus of three or four schools in this state.

As schools lose students, they receive less money and must cut back the very features that could help attract and keep students– counselors, honors classes, elective courses and extracurricular programs–and become shells of what they once were.

Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett decided that high schools would not be among the schools shuttered during massive school closings. But with so many high schools languishing, some observers question whether it is good to let students attend high schools that can’t offer a variety of classes, activities and opportunities.

Chicago, which has lost students overall, is not the only city facing this dilemma. Across the country, the role of neighborhood schools in an era of choice has been hotly debated. The problem prompted 21 grassroots organizations, including organizations in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Minnesota, to forge a national alliance called Journey for Justice to fight against the closing of neighborhood schools in poor communities of color.

New York University Professor Pedro Noguera says that lots of cities have struggling neighborhood schools.

“The kids that wind up in neighborhood schools are often the most vulnerable and the most disenfranchised,” he says. “We have got to look at capacity and make sure the schools have the capacity to serve them.”

Generation All seeks answers

Not all educators believe neighborhood high schools are important. Noble Street Charter founder and president Michael Milkie points out that high school students are mobile and so are able to travel to a school of their choosing.

In New York City, for example, every student must apply to high school and then is given an offer at one school. Those who are not offered a spot at any of their choices must attend a fair for schools that still have seats. For years, such a system has been discussed in Chicago.

Yet Byrd-Bennett does not seem ready to do away with neighborhood high schools altogether. Their fate has become such a pressing issue that she and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis agreed to work on the problem together. The commitment sparked an initiative at the Chicago Community Trust, Generation All, in which teachers, principals, parents and community members are coming together to make recommendations about how to jump-start schools.

Generation All plans to tackle major questions, such as what it means to have equity in education, how neighborhood high schools are defined and how they can be revitalized, says Beatriz Ponce de León, who is directing Generation All.

“Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Lewis agree that given the landscape, there is a place for strong neighborhood schools,” Ponce de León says.  “These schools are community anchors.”

Ponce de León points to schools such as Senn in Edgewater and Juarez in Pilsen, schools that communities are rallying around. Half of the students in Juarez’s attendance area go to the schoo, and its enrollment is stable. Senn this year has 119 more students than it did last year.

“They are starting to become a draw because they have improved instruction, created a positive school climate and engaged the community,” Ponce de Leon says.

But then there’s Manley, a West Side school that was on the upswing but is now struggling. Manley has only 356 students, and only 9 percent of area students attend the school.

Working in tandem with Generation All, CPS Chief of Staff Aarti Dhupelia says district officials want to make sure that there is “equity and access” among high schools. That means that students should be able to take various classes or programs, such as International Baccalaureate courses or career and technical education classes, without having to travel far from home.

Plus, all schools should have certain resources, Dhupelia says, such as an acceptable student-to-counselor ratio.

While it may take more than a year before CPS or Generation All is ready to issue recommendations, Dhupelia says that the district could act as early as this year to ensure more equity in resources.

How schools cope

Ponce de Leon says that once a high school has less than 500 students, it is difficult to offer a good range of programs, classes and activities.

One such school is Robeson in Englewood. Principal Gerald Morrow is working to attract more students through marketing, but is skeptical that his efforts will be successful and has accepted that the school will most likely remain small. When Morrow started at Robeson almost a decade ago, some 1,500 students attended the school.

In the past four years, enrollment has dropped from 776 students to 295. Morrow has had to lay off an assistant principal, 38 teachers and five security guards. However, he kept four employees who work to provide students with support, including a college coach and a social worker.

With Robeson now a fifth the size it once was, Morrow points out how the school has changed. Robeson at one time had a strong sports program that regularly sent football players to Division 1 schools. In the 1980s, it was the last school from the public league to win a state championship.

Robeson still has sports programs, but they are smaller, with prospective college athletes choosing other schools.

Each year, Morrow has to figure out how to make do with less.

His office is now on the same floor as all the classes. “Every time I walk out I can see the students. I love it,” he says. “It makes this job very hands-on. I get to see the students every day…. I have had to figure out, how do I build the best small school model? I can’t go around saying ‘We had this and we had that.’ As a leader I have to make it the best that I can.”

“I have had to reinvent myself every year,” Morrow adds. “I have to reach into my toolkit and see, what do I have right now? What do I need to do?”

On the Southwest Side, Gage Park High School is a majestic, block-long school that could enroll 1,200 students and was at capacity just four years ago, with some 90 teachers. This year, less than 500 students enrolled (about 13 percent of the students in the area) and the school has only 40 teachers.

Principal Brian Metcalf, who just arrived in late September after an abrupt retirement by the former principal, is hopeful he can turn the school around. One of the first things he did when he came to Gage Park was to survey the students to see what they wanted. He then asked teachers what club or sport they might volunteer to take over. Metcalf admits that it may be hard to launch full-fledged competitive teams, but he is looking at offering intermural programs.

For three or four years, Gage Park had no dances or other activities that teenagers expect in high school—no homecoming, no pep rallies. So one of Metcalf’s first actions was to schedule a homecoming dance–that went off without a hitch.

“The students came in their suits and ties and skirts and there was not an incident,” he says. “The adults were surprised.” He now plans to hold a winter dance.

“There is quality here”

Hard hit high schools have been dealt simultaneous blows: a loss of students, the opening of charters and other new schools, poor reputations and dangerous surrounding neighborhoods.

Morrow says he is not against competition from other schools. But like many principals of neighborhood high schools, he feels as though he is starting from a disadvantage.

“People do not have a problem with Robeson,” he says. “They have a problem with 69th Street.”

Robeson’s test scores are low, Morrow concedes. But he points out that the school’s rate of improvement is not that bad. This year, Robeson moved up a level from the lowest rated school. He says low performing students can make as much or more progress at Robeson than at Johnson College Prep, a Noble Street Charter campus with 819 students that is less than a mile away. (According to CPS, Johnson’s growth on standardized tests is “average,” while Robeson’s is “below average.”)

“We want to say to people, look at these schools,” Morrow says. “There is quality here.”

Though Metcalf has been on the job for less than two months, he has already started going out to local elementary schools and taken parents of eighth-graders on tours of the school. He also convinced Morrill Elementary Principal Michael Beyer to let him host eighth-graders on the school’s annual high school application night.

While Metcalf says some parents seemed impressed, Beyer notes that some students did not attend because their parents viewed the school as too dangerous for their child to go to for the activity.

Tonya Hammaker, principal of Farragut, says the school also suffers, like Robeson and Gage Park, from a bad reputation. Farragut, however, is not among the lowest- performing schools: Under the last principal, it earned a Level 2 rating and got off academic probation.

Farragut also is a wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate school, and has programs in ROTC, auto mechanics and law.

Yet it is still losing students and is down to 980 from 1,100 last year. A decade ago, it had 2,500 students.

Hammaker says the biggest problems with reputation sometimes stem from alumni who are now parents and remember the rough Farragut of the 1990s. Other times it is the product of the area around the school, which many see as dangerous.

“When we talk to students at our feeder schools they say, ‘My parents won’t let me go to Farragut,’ ” she says. “We have been fighting that reputation for so many years.”

One of Hammaker’s strategies is to invite parents to come spend a day at Farragut and to see what is happening in the halls. “They will see that it is not scary,” she says.

She also has started putting out a community newsletter, which she drops off at businesses in the community.

“That way people can see there are so many great things going on at this school,” she says. “The perception of a neighborhood school is a struggle. I don’t know what can be done about that. I don’t know how to fix it.”

is an associate editor for our sister publication, Catalyst Chicago.