Brennemann Elementary recorded a couple of troubling trends in the three years between 2002 through 2005. Total enrollment fell by 28 percent and a smaller share of its students were living in the Uptown school’s attendance boundaries.

Other neighborhood schools in the community were noticing similar shifts in enrollment. Arai, which will close next year, and McCutcheon were losing students, too.

Around the same time, Chicago Public Schools demographers started keeping closer tabs on Uptown enrollment, organizer Thomas Walsh was finishing up work on a housing and land use study for Loyola University’s Center for Urban Research and Learning.

Walsh and a team of researchers were looking to sketch an accurate profile of Uptown as the residents debated the community’s future. During the course of their work, Walsh, a community leader for Organization of the Northeast, a group serving Uptown and surrounding areas, came across an interesting clash of statistics.

During the 1990s, Uptown posted the city’s fifth-largest increase in the number of new owner-occupiced housing units. At the same time, the community lost 3,000 children age 17 and under.

Uptown was losing kids, Walsh reasoned, because immigrant families who had historically made Uptown their port of entry were now priced out of the neighborhood, which was rapidly gaining new condominiums and saw steep rent increases in established apartment buildings.

But district officials counter that gentrification doesn’t always account for shifts in Uptown’s enrollment.

“People want to assume that gentrification causes a decrease in public school student population and often times those things may correlate,” says James Dispensa, CPS director of school demographics and planning. “You can’t just look solely at a decrease in public school attendance and then make that claim without going out and looking for extra data.”

One recent district policy shift affected enrollment at four area elementary schools. In 2004, Arai Middle was tagged for closure, and earlier that year, 6th-graders had been rerouted to Brennemann, McCutcheon, Stewart and Stockton.

Those feeder schools were told to add 7th and 8th grades if they didn’t have them already.

Meanwhile, Uplift, the school that opened this fall in Arai’s facility, does not have attendance boundaries and will draw its middle and high school population from throughout the city.

Enrollment at Stockton actually crept up 5 percent over the last three years, but the school posted the biggest decline—nearly 16 points—in drawing students from its own attendance area. (See chart)

Dispensa notes that Stockton may still be drawing children who live in Uptown, though they may not live within the school’s attendance boundaries.

Curtis Lawrence is a freelance writer and director of the Journalism Graduate Program at Columbia College Chicago.

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