Henson Elementary School was closed because of underutilization last year.

Last year’s school closings stirred hot debate in part because closing decisions were based on claims by the district that buildings were half-empty and should be shuttered.

Many parents and activists claimed that CPS’ utilization rates were flawed and did not take into account, for instance, room used for special education students or as offices for staff. The district recently released updated utilization data, with little fanfare—but has not changed its criteria for calculating utilization rates that are the basis for designating schools as overcrowded, under-utilized or “efficient.”

No school closings are on the horizon this year, or indeed until at least 2018, if the district holds firm to CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s promise last year not to close schools for at least five years. Yet the new data reveals some telling information about which schools might be in danger in the future and which ones are on more solid footing as a result of taking in displaced students. The data include charter schools, with more than one-third of campuses– 36 of 101–labeled as under-utilized.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis shows the big picture: As more new schools, primarily charters, open each year, some traditional schools seem to be withering away:

  • Fourteen schools are more than two-thirds empty, 10 of them neighborhood high schools with attendance boundaries. Those 10 schools comprise more than 20 percent of the remaining 45 neighborhood high schools. Many of these high schools are in old buildings that are costly to maintain. For example, Hirsch High School has only 273 students and needs $22 million in renovations. Though Byrd-Bennett declined to shut down any high schools last year because of safety concerns, she has not indicated her future plans for these schools.
  • Overall, about 200 schools are rated as underutilized, compared to 296 schools last year.
  • Only 15 of 48 welcoming schools—schools that took in students displaced by closings—moved from under-utilized to efficient. Some of the 33 schools that remain underutilized did not attract many students, despite significant investment from CPS. For example, CPS’ plan called for students from Kohn Elementary in Roseland to go to Cullen, Langston Hughes and Lavizzo. Yet each of those three schools remains underutilized.
  • Three neighborhoods with the most schools that are under-utilized—Chatham, South Shore and Austin—are all slated to get new schools within the next two years.

Charter numbers: Misleading or on point?

To justify the continued expansion of charters, charter school leaders have repeatedly stated that their schools are in high demand and have waiting lists. Yet the data raise a question: What to make of the fact that 36 percent of charters are labeled by CPS as underutilized?

Charter proponents and operators say those figures are misleading. For one, at least 10 of those 36 schools opened within the last few years and are still growing.

Plus, charter schools agree to only accept a particular number of students when they are authorized, regardless of their building size. The only way to know whether a charter really has unfilled seats is to know how many students the charter is allowed to take under their enrollment cap, says Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. No one keeps such a list, but Broy insists that only a few charter schools have trouble filling seats.

Chicago International Charter School-Larry Hawkins Campus is one such school, but there are specific reasons why that is the case, says Beth Purvis, chief executive officer of Chicago International, which runs 15 schools. Hawkins serves students living in Altgeld Gardens, a public housing complex that has lost substantial population and is still undergoing a major renovation.

The campus, which runs from 7th– through 12th grade, opened three years ago. Originally, Purvis proposed adding one grade per year, but CPS officials asked her to open up all grades at once to give students from that area another choice besides Fenger High School. The year before the Hawkins campus opened, Fenger drew international attention because of the beating death of student Derrion Albert by classmates. Some observers blamed the death on the fact that students from Altgeld Gardens were traveling to Fenger after their neighborhood high school was turned into a selective military school, thus leading to friction with students from Fenger’s area.

With a quick influx of students, the school has had something of a rocky start, Purvis says. “We have had 12th graders coming in with only a few credits,” she says.

When coming up with an enrollment cap, many factors are considered, Purvis says. The size of the building, as well as the size of classrooms, is taken into account. Purvis notes that some buildings have small classrooms and she has decided only so many children can fit in them.

But sometimes caps can work against charter schools. CICS campuses on the North Side are so popular that Purvis has been on the waiting list for one of them for three years. She refuses to make an exception, even for her own child.  

CICS, like most charter schools, accepts more students than they think will attend, knowing that a certain percent will turn down the offer. This year, more students than expected took seats at the Northtown campus. Now the charter school is 37 students over its cap.

“CPS is refusing to pay me for those students,” Purvis says. Purvis calls this is a double standard because CPS held traditional schools harmless if they were under-enrolled. 

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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