Urban school systems all over the Northeast and Midwest are facing declining enrollment and struggle with the challenge of downsizing without shortchanging students’ education. Unfortunately, Chicago is a leader in the problem, but new thinking on the role of neighborhoods could propel the city to become a leader in solutions.
Enrollment in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has been sliding for almost a decade, and that trend shows no signs of slowing down. This year, CPS enrolled the smallest kindergarten class in recent memory—a scant 24,128 young students. Chicago’s public school system is built for 500,000 students, but today only about 360,000 are enrolled. This raises serious questions about excess capacity and the quality of education students receive in drastically underenrolled schools.
Many are calling on the district to solve the puzzle of too much capacity and too few students. But this isn’t just their puzzle. It is all of ours. We need to empower communities to determine their own way forward and to find the solutions that work best for them. We all saw what school closures without robust community input looked like in 2013. We cannot relive our past. There can and must be a different way.
CPS has begun, and must continue, outreach efforts in communities to support them in developing their own solutions. The district deserves credit for the release of the Annual Regional Analysis, an accessible database of school demographics and performance. Presenting this information to families is only the first stage of developing solutions, but it is a critical one. After all, you can’t argue for equity if you can’t definitively point to inequities.
Neighborhoods Must Take the Lead in Creating Schools’ Futures
But what comes next?
Just as we can’t have a closing process like we had in 2013, we also can’t continue the practice of creating new schools regardless of capacity to fill them. We do not need more schools unless community members demand a new option to replace a school that they feel isn’t working. More schools will further exacerbate the significant challenges we are already facing as a school system and city.
Instead, communities must have the opportunity to grow demand and enrollment in their existing schools. Give them a timeline and let them create homegrown solutions for strengthening neighborhood schools. The cornerstone for this work could be HB 5721, a new state law that recently prompted CPS to adopt a policy to support underenrolled schools.
When neighborhoods work together to find ways to boost local schools’ enrollments, their solutions are more likely to involve institutions beyond education. That’s the kind of thinking we’ll need to solve the problem. Communities and kids are stronger when all the players work together on solutions.
City Hall Must Invest in Smart, Homegrown Strategies
This is the hard part. Our students demand no less than an unwavering commitment on the part of the district and city leaders to making equity a priority in CPS.
With the population in some neighborhoods dropping by up to one-third, leaders must put the most vulnerable communities at the center of the decision process. Community-based solutions are sure to go a long way toward addressing the specific needs of struggling neighborhoods.
It will be up to CPS and City Hall to sort through the solutions that result from the community ideation process, select the best and breathe life into them through adequate funding.
The most recent U.S. Census, federal restrictions on immigration and the declining birthrate all point to the need for us to reimagine a smaller, more innovative and inclusive Chicago school system. Let’s get to the hard work of designing what that new system will look like—together.