Sawyer Elementary Credit: Joe Gallo

A Catalyst analysis finds that after $680 million in capital spending over the last decade, school overcrowding is still widespread. The district says it needs more money. Critics say the district also needs a better capital plan.

At Canty Elementary on the far Northwest Side, some teachers are doubled up two to a classroom, students eat lunch at their desks since the cafeteria was converted to classroom space, and primary-grade classes exceed union class-size caps.

The school has a four-classroom mobile unit to hold overflow students, but no new permanent additions or annexes are in the works, says Assistant Principal Jan Keeley.

“We were on the list and were deleted from it,” says Keeley, who will take over for retiring Principal Michael Connolly in July. At a recent hearing on the CPS capital budget, Keeley and other Canty staff gave CPS officials a rundown on the school’s space problems. Overcrowding has become a significant problem in the entire Dunning neighborhood, where Canty is located: Five schools now meet the district’s official overcrowding threshold.

Although Canty is a high-achieving school, overcrowding makes it more difficult to serve low-income students who need extra resources, notes teacher’s aide Cindy Mavridis. For one, the school has no room for a state-funded preschool or a full-day kindergarten. “Are we going to have to wait until children are failing before we get help?” Mavridis asks.

An analysis by Catalyst Chicago of enrollment and capital spending data for Chicago Public Schools over the past decade shows that Canty’s predicament is not uncommon. The $680 million CPS has spent on dozens of new elementary schools and additions since 1996 (the year a major capital improvement plan got underway) hasn’t made much more than a dent in the problem. More than one in four elementary schools is officially overcrowded now, down slightly from 1995, when the ratio was about one in three schools.

“Basically, we are treading water,” acknowledges Giacomo Mancuso, CPS’s retired director of school demographics and planning, who now works as a consultant for the district.

As a result, education suffers: Class sizes are too large, teachers are forced to teach in hallways and closets, and programs such as art, music and stand-alone computer labs are cut back for lack of space.

With no new capital money on the horizon, CPS is struggling to manage the problem but had to suspend plans for eight additions and three new schools when the state failed to provide an expected $110 million in construction funds.

Critics agree that the district is facing severe fiscal constraints. But they say the district has no clear, consistent capital planning policy and needs to do a better job of predicting population shifts and changes in the housing market that could affect enrollment. CPS says it’s working to fine-tune its enrollment projections.

Where kids are, where the money went

To gauge the community-wide impact of overcrowding, Catalyst analyzed elementary overcrowding in each of the city’s 77 neighborhoods beginning in 1995, the year before a major capital improvement plan got underway.

Catalyst also tracked CPS spending on overcrowding relief and compared spending to community need. (High schools were excluded because less than half of students attend their neighborhood high school and high schools can operate on split shifts or juggle starting times to accommodate more students.)

Catalyst found that:

The number of overcrowded neighborhoods remains virtually the same today as in 1995 (23 and 24, respectively). And 14 neighborhoods that were overcrowded in 1995 are still overcrowded.

Only half of the 14 persistently overcrowded neighborhoods received more than the average for capital spending on overcrowding relief, which was approximately $3,300 per pupil.

Currently, 136 of 486 elementary schools are overcrowded. That figure is down by 20 since 1995, when 156 of 454 schools were overcrowded.

Three neighborhoods that were overcrowded in 1995—Rogers Park, Edgewater and Lincoln Square—received higher-than-average capital funding but saw enrollment decline by 2005. In contrast, 13 neighborhoods saw overcrowding get worse, but received lower-than-average funding. Spending disparity is the end result of CPS “throwing all of this money at elementary school construction without having a plan,” notes Jacqueline Leavy, executive director of Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a capital spending watchdog organization. Other states, such as New Jersey, Ohio and Maryland, are involved in long-range facility planning, she notes.

According to an NCBG analysis, by 2004, 35 schools that received new buildings, additions or annexes had become overcrowded again. “The population keeps on shifting, faster than we can keep up with the construction,” Mancuso notes. And, he adds, “Knowing where we need to build new schools is one thing, but having the money is another.”

Questions of politics, equity

The district has a reputation for keeping capital planning under wraps. In 1997, even the members of a blue-ribbon advisory committee couldn’t get a handle on project planning. Today, principals and local school council members say they’re kept in the dark about the status of projects at their schools.

At Peterson Elementary in North Park, Principal Joseph Kallas and a number of parents are so fed up with being placed on and taken off the district’s lists detailing capital projects that they turned out at a recent public hearing to ask permission to fundraise privately for an addition.

“We believe we can raise these funds. We are merely asking for permission,” Kallas told Chief Operations Officer Sean Murphy, who said that would require further discussion. Peterson, which has students in mobile units and leased facilities, is at 98 percent of its capacity, two percentage points shy of the threshold for “severe overcrowding.”

Leavy suggests political pressures influence spending decisions. In fact, a Catalyst analysis of overall capital spending in CPS found that in 1997, money was initially targeted to the wards of powerful aldermen Richard Mell and Edward Burke and other middle-class neighborhoods. A later analysis in 1998 found that funds were now being spread out more equitably. (See Catalyst, June 1997 and November 1998.)

One former top official points out that capital money has to cover repairs and maintenance, not just overcrowding. “Could we have spent all the money to fully and thoroughly relieve overcrowding?” asks Gery Chico, the former School Board president who oversaw capital spending in the late 1990s. “Maybe, but that would have shortchanged the rest of the city.”

Chico estimates it would take close to $10 billion to fully address overcrowding as well as rehab needs that have been aggravated by decades of deferred maintenance.

Inaccurate projections cause problems

A number of school principals say the district could do a better job of planning new construction if enrollment projections were more accurate.

“The demographic projections I’ve received have been way below what I already got,” says Marjorie Joy, principal of Lee Elementary in West Lawn. The district once told her she would likely have 925 students in the coming year, she says, “and I already had 1,050.”

“They need to listen to us out here in the field,” says Joyce Jager, principal of Eberhart Elementary in Chicago Lawn. “They’re telling me I’m going to be down 100 kids [next year]. I haven’t gone down in 12 years. I’m averaging an increase of 75 kids a year.”

When projections used to allocate teacher positions are faulty, schools are forced to lay off teachers in the spring, only to rehire them in the fall—a cycle that principals say increases teacher turnover, reduces the quality of new hires and hurts staff morale. This spring, Jager says central office forced her to cut three teaching positions, though she is virtually certain she will have to add them in the fall. By that time, the teachers who were let go are likely to have found jobs elsewhere.

At McKay Elementary in Chicago Lawn, Principal Alan Berger is faced with breaking the news of layoffs to some of the same teachers for the second year in a row. Last year, he says, “I had to lay off seven people and tell them to hang in there, because this flies in the face of logic. They were hired back.”

This spring, the board told him to cut positions again, though he had been told to anticipate an additional six classrooms’ worth of students. “It probably has nothing to do with projections and everything to do with the budget,” he observes.

One of the teachers he laid off was among the ones in limbo last year, too. “She is asking me point blank, ‘You think I’d be better off teaching in a suburban school district?’ Here we’re trying to attract young teachers, and because of these other issues, whether it’s the budget or an inability to accurately project enrollment, we’re losing them.”

Leavy says CPS needs to improve its communication with other city departments to do a better job of forecasting enrollment change.

“They did not coordinate with City Hall and the [Chicago Housing Authority] to understand population shifts in the city or the overarching picture of community development,” Leavy says.

Even local politicians are frustrated. “In the east end of my district I have empty classrooms and on the west end I have overcrowded classrooms,” says state Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-2). “CPS has fallen short in mapping out a school construction plan that is based on [accurate] demographic projections.”

Housing market a factor

To forecast enrollment for the coming year, CPS now analyzes enrollment grade by grade for the previous five years, to determine the number of students who continue from one grade to the next. That figure is called the “core survival ratio” and is a common demographic planning tool in many districts, Mancuso explains.

In addition, CPS examines birth rates by census tract and enrollment in key entry grades: pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and 9th grade (for high schools). While district-wide projections are generally accurate—projections for this year were within a percentage point of actual enrollment—school-level projections are less so.

“The smaller the unit of focus, the greater the probability of error,” Mancuso explains.

But the projections do not take into account changes in the city’s booming housing market, especially gentrification that drives out families and lower-income residents, that could impact school enrollment. CPS officials say that will change.

James Dispensa, director of school demographics and planning for CPS, admits the district needs to determine how changing housing patterns might affect enrollment. To do so, he is negotiating with the city’s Department of Buildings to track building permits, both current and historical.

The district will use the data to determine whether there is any connection between new housing and neighborhood gentrification and a decrease in student enrollment in the neighborhood schools.

“Sometimes correlation is not causality. Until I get the data and have time to really study it, I can’t assess the impact of what’s happening,” Dispensa says.

Principal Elba Maisonet of Schubert Elementary in Belmont Cragin says the rental market can impact enrollment as well. “If the apartments are overpriced then there are fewer students,” she says. “If they are more affordable, we see an influx of students.”

Leavy thinks a better exchange of information, as Dispensa is planning, is long overdue. “A collegial relationship with other local government agencies is absolutely essential to figuring this stuff out. And it’s not rocket science. Because we have such centralized mayoral control here, it should be easy.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or send an e-mail to

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.