Teacher Elizabeth Carrillo helps 7th-grader Hassuby Castillo in a combined bilingual and general education English class at long-overcrowded Sawyer Elementary. [Photo by Cristina Rutter] Credit: Photo by Cristina Rutter


From school closings to recent staffing cuts, the overall decline in enrollment in regular Chicago public schools has been center stage in media and policy discussions.  Yet school overcrowding remains a big issue on the Northwest and Southwest sides.

Between 1996 and 2005, CPS spent $680 million in capital funds, largely on additions, annexes and new schools. But the money made little dent in overcrowding. One-quarter of the funds were spent in neighborhoods where enrollment had actually declined.

As then School Board President Gery Chico explained it, the district had to spread its limited capital resources around, tending not just to overcrowding relief but also to maintenance, rehab and other facility needs.

The Southwest Side has struggled with overcrowded schools for at least 30 years. In the late 1990s and 2000s, four Southwest Side neighborhoods with long-overcrowded schools got increased capital spending. But only one, McKinley Park, got enough to accommodate all its students.

Brighton Park, Chicago Lawn and Gage Park also enjoyed higher-than-average capital funds, but the money wasn’t enough to relieve overcrowding altogether. Meanwhile, other Southwest Side neighborhoods received much less money, even though their enrollments were also on the rise.

On the Northwest Side, enrollments started rising just as the capital-spending spigot began to run dry. Of six Far Northwest Side communities with overcrowding, only Jefferson Park received funds for construction, and its allotment was less than half the citywide per-pupil average.

See “’Treading Water’ to relieve overcrowding,” and “Southwest, Northwest: Two Sides of Overcrowding,” Catalyst May 2005


By 2005, the CPS capital-spending boom was over, but localized overcrowding remained a problem. At the same time, the charter school footprint within the district was growing. All three factors converged when then-CEO Arne Duncan called Juan Rangel, then head of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), to invite his charter network (now known as UCSN) to take over a Catholic school building at 51st and California.

By 2007, UNO’s rapidly expanding charter network was in the construction business, and in 2009 it received a $98 million state grant to build new schools. But UNO’s management of the grant—including a slew of contracts handed out to relatives of UNO leadership and its political allies—sparked an investigation that led to Rangel’s resignation and a restructuring of the relationship between UNO and the charter organization it had founded.

Moving on from the UNO debacle, in 2013 CPS issued a request for new charter school proposals that specifically encouraged operators to locate in overcrowded Northwest and Southwest side neighborhoods. Aldermen and community residents argued that more investment in existing neighborhood schools was a better way to address overcrowding. Even some charter advocates doubted the plan’s feasibility, noting that there weren’t enough available buildings.  Ultimately, seven new charter schools were approved, two on the Northwest Side and one on the Southwest Side.

See “Charters sought to relieve overcrowding, but communities question strategy,” Catalyst August 2013 and “CPS approves seven new charter schools,” WBEZ January 2014.


For the near future, most Northwest and Southwest side schools are likely to continue to serve large populations of students. If the current slowdown in immigration holds, it is possible that population growth in those areas will also slow.

Since 2011, projects to address overcrowding have been completed at 36 schools, and three more are in progress. In September, Mayor Rahm Emanuel cut the ribbon on two new capital projects built to address overcrowding: a $14.4 million annex for the Northwest Side’s Wildwood Elementary and a $20 million addition to Lincoln Elementary in Lincoln Park. The Lincoln addition came under fire from many quarters, including parents who thought the money would be better spent in less-affluent neighborhoods.

These days, the district faces less public scrutiny of its capital decisions, since the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a nonprofit focused on Chicago’s public works spending, folded in 2007. As former executive director Jacqueline Leavy noted in 2005, “throwing money at elementary school construction” without a plan leads to spending disparities.

In 2011, the Illinois legislature established the Chicago Educational Facilites Task Force and required the district to develop a 10-year master facilities plan. A task force FAQ document says CPS drafted the plan without its input. Community leaders said they were left out, too. “It appears CPS fulfilled the letter of the law while neglecting the spirit of it,” parent activist Joy Clendenning wrote in a Catalyst op-ed. By law, the plan will come up for review next year.

See “Chicago Public Schools chided by affluent school communities for inequity,” WBEZ June 2014 and “Millions spent, little relief,” Catalyst May 2005.

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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