Ashburn Elementary Credit: photo by John Booz

By the end of last school year, Principal Norma Cortez of Midway Academy had filed transfer papers for more than half of her 270 students. In September, she gained a whole new batch of children to replace them.

By the end of this school year, Cortez predicts, “We’re going to go through the same thing all over again.”

Midway’s students come and go because the Garfield Ridge school serves solely as a receiving site for students shut out of their overcrowded neighborhood school. A typical Midway student switches schools at least twice—once when they arrive at Midway (from another school in CPS or outside the district) and a second time when their home school finds an open seat.

But this practice, a kind of forced or sanctioned mobility, Cortez says, tends to hurt more than help by compounding the academic and social problems students face in adapting to new schools.

Given the district’s longstanding problems with overcrowding, Cortez would prefer to keep her students. But CPS dismisses that option and plans to phase out its receiving schools by pushing overcrowded schools to adopt year-round schedules. (Two schools, Tonti and Edwards, are slated to adopt year-round schedules next year.) But year-round schedules are unpopular in some communities, and, given ongoing concern about the accuracy of the district’s enrollment projections, it’s questionable whether plans for handling overcrowding are feasible.

Academics, staffing must shift

Next year, Midway will continue to take in students but is set to lose one of its two buildings to Pasteur, an overcrowded school nearby that has sent some of its students to Midway temporarily. CPS has told Midway it will become a 1st- through 6th-grade school—sending 7th- and 8th-graders back to their neighborhood school or another receiving school.

James Dispensa, director of school demographics and planning, says the move is a good decision. “It’s really difficult for one to suggest that Midway must have higher priority over the need for Pasteur to have that space for its neighborhood school.”

Having such a transient enrollment makes it difficult to maintain educational programs, Cortez says. For instance, a good number of this year’s new students had test scores below grade level and were especially weak in reading and writing. Midway had already worked to bring returning students up to grade level in those areas, so teachers had to shift gears to help new students catch up. “We found out what we had created in our school improvement plan had to be totally redone,” Cortez says.

Meanwhile, inaccurate enrollment projections forced Cortez to make a last-minute search at the start of the year to re-fill four teaching positions cut last year. Cortez believes the district should have known new students would replace those transferring out, but instead, the projections were so low that Midway didn’t have a teacher for every grade level at the start of the year.

“That teacher should have been there from day one,” Cortez says.

Complaints about inaccurate projections in overcrowded communities are not new. (see Catalyst, May 2005) But Dispensa says accurately predicting a school’s enrollment is difficult, in part because enrollment growth is slowing. Next year, he predicts only about 1,000 students will be displaced systemwide to receiving schools by overcrowding—half this year’s number.

Some parents have opted to keep their children at Midway when seats became available at their neighborhood school. This year, 18 students opted to stay even though they lost their right to bus transportation. Kids who do leave, Cortez says, do so “because of the transportation, not because of the school. They like it here.”

Yet CPS officials say most parents want their kids to move into the home school. “They won’t be wasting so much time on transportation, and they’ll be able to benefit from the after-school programs,” says Carmen Navarro in the Office of Instruction and School Management.

Cortez admits that her students suffer from the long rides to and from Midway early in the morning, and says she is still trying to find a way to fund an after school-program. Yet she insists the district should allow the receiving schools to develop programs and keep students rather than move them multiple times.

Principal Jewel Diaz feels much the same about Ashburn Elementary, another Southwest Side receiving school. “I know I would like Ashburn to be definitely considered for a new building. That way we could have enough space to keep the same children from year to year,” Diaz says.

Ashburn faced a challenge when it became a receiving school last year: Latino students from overcrowded schools joined the previously all-black school, which had been losing enrollment. “At first we thought, ‘Oh wow, kids coming from different areas, that could be a bad thing,'” Diaz recalls.

To ease the transition, the school developed an English as a Second Language program and added Latino and Afro-centric programs to foster cultural understanding, such as an annual multi-cultural fair and a Cinco de Mayo celebration.

It’s only too bad, Diaz says, that once the children get used to this atmosphere, it’s time for them to leave. “They’re learning from each other. They come together.”

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