Utilization Meeting

On Tuesday, I attended the O’Hare network’s community engagement meeting on school utilization. It was quite a bit calmer than the Ravenswood-Ridge network meeting the previous evening, or at the commission’s Midway network meeting at Daley College on the same evening. That’s not to say that O’Hare network parents aren’t upset, but overcrowding is less of a story within the framework of CPS utilization and closures.

Of the 44 elementary and middle schools in the O’Hare network, 21 are overcrowded, 21 are “efficient” and only two–both middle schools–are underutilized according to the District’s formula. The crisis of seats is new in some cases; in others, it’s only manufactured.

In 2007, when I applied to K for The Boy, who is now in 4th grade, CPS was a whole different beast. At the time, the real estate market had only just begun its free fall, so the “move to the suburbs when your kids reach school age so you don’t have to deal with CPS” mindset was still very much in play. Indeed, a fair number of The Boy’s contemporaries moved to the ‘burbs as their parents opted out of the CPS game.

In 2007, the system was also less transparent and less straightforward than it is now. I’m not kidding.

In a January Cure-inspired clean out of old files, I recently unearthed the self-addressed, stamped postcards that had been marked “received” and returned to me from The Boy’s application process. I had to send these postcards along with paper applications individually to the 29 schools on my list.Among the paperwork, I also found the 20+ letters I received in response to my applications. Some denied admission outright. Some told me that The Boy had been placed on the waitlist. Some told me that The Boy had been placed on the waitlist and included a number.

Of them, 13 were within what is now the O’Hare network. Of those 13, the District considers nine of them to be overcrowded, given its “ideal capacity” for each school based on utilization formula drafted by the District’s consultants last fall. Some argue that this formula sets the efficiency standards too high. Using the alternate formula, the number of overcrowded schools in the O’Hare network increases to 25.

But I’m not sure these school’s population problems were always thus. In 2007, as now, our neighborhood school is Murphy Elementary. In 2007, according to CPS data, Murphy enrolled 514 students in grades K-6th. Five years later,  Murphy enrollment has jumped to 602 students in grades K-8th. The District’s ideal for the building is 540 students. In 2007, I knew zero school-aged neighborhood children who attended Murphy. Most of my neighbors sent their children to Hawthorne, Walt Disney Magnet School, Bell RGC, Blaine, Burley, or parochial school. A woman on my block sent her two children to Murphy for five years before pulling them out after they–and she–were bullied. Fortunately, a change in leadership brought about a change in school culture and Murphy’s LSC head, a woman sitting to my left on Tuesday, told the facilitators that the things that make her kids; school great are the same things that make the schools CPS would want to replicate great: parent involvement, social-emotional supports, good teachers, great leader, and community partnerships.

Belding, the only elementary school to accept The Boy from its waitlist in April 2007, was also teetering on the cusp of overcrowding even as we applied in 2007. At that time, the school drew part of its K class from its not-necessarily-in-boundary PK students, comprising 35-72 students. An interesting tactic for a school so close to “capacity” from its in-boundary attendance area. For 2007-2008, Belding enrollment was 463 in grades K-8th. In 2012, CPS’s ideal capacity for the school is 480. Today, Belding enrolls 665 K-8th students, which the District classifies as overcrowded.

However, Belding’s capacity has nothing on Scammon, the neighborhood option for 1/3 of Old Irving Park and most of “”South Old Irving” and the Villa. In 2007-2008, Scammon enrolled a whopping 1,026 students in grades K-8th. In 2012, the District’s ideal for the school is 780. The District deems Scammon enrollment to be efficient, with its 893 K-8th students. The alternate formula sorts Scammon as overcrowded, which it clearly must be to have three mobile units keeping its students in some semblance of classroom space.

That perception often creates reality is the case with Scammon; I know no one in its boundaries that would consider it as a viable option for their children. Why? The reasons do include overcrowding, but I think it’s more likely that Scammon’s student population is overwhelmingly ESL/ Hispanic and poor. And yet, despite this perception and the online chatter that the immediate neighborhood is unsafe, the District ranks it as a Level 1 school.

At Tuesday’s meeting, a teacher from the network’s only underutilized District (non-charter) school–Thurgood Marshall Middle School–was in attendance. TMMS is a half block from my house, so it’s always been of interest to me. The teacher spoke about what was present at his school (lots of kids, dedicated teachers) and what was lacking (working 4th floor toilets, a repaired stage).He said that he had also taught at IPMS–before it was shuttered in 2008 for under-enrollment and turned into Disney II Magnet, a point of information that seems to have pissed ff virtually everyone who was–or wants to be–tangentially involved in its existence. IPMS–he claimed–was shuttered for under-enrollment although it held as many students in 2007-2008 as Disney II does now. CPS data could be totally wrong. But is number for enrollment at IPMS in 2007 were 340–not the 415 (in K-6th) at Disney II now. In 2012, TMMS combined enrollment is 431 students in 7-8th grades. The District thinks 810 is ideal for TMMS. But even using the alternate formula, TMMS remains underutilized.

The LSC chair from Murphy posited that the District is “starving” TMMS to force its closure. IMO, this is a valid concern. And yet: the District seems to be returning to a strategy of upper and lower schools. There remain only three middle schools in the O’Hare network–TMMS, Albany Park, and a charter, Aspira-Haugan. A quick Google search revealed only seven other freestanding middle schools within CPS. TMMS and Aspira-Haugan are both Level 3, as are three of the freestanding middle schools. To me, this suggests that middle school is too much transition for students to do well.

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