Most crowded high schools enroll extra students by choice

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By the School Board’s definition, 18 of the city’s 92 secondary schools are overcrowded. However, 15 of them are overcrowded by choice, a Catalyst analysis of board data shows.

Mather High School in West Rogers Park , for example, has a design capacity of 1,520 students; last year, it enrolled 1,839 students, with about a third coming from outside its attendance area. Without the outsiders, Mather’s enrollment would have been about 250 students under capacity.

Principal John Butterfield says that to offer high-level programs, he needs to recruit some students from beyond Mather’s boundaries. “I’ll take kids from outside to make programs available that might not otherwise be there,” says Butterfield, a former Mather teacher who has been principal for 10 years.

He cites the school’s law program as an example. To keep enrollment steady in that elite program, he says, he needs to recruit about 20 percent of the participants from outside Mather’s attendance boundaries, which stretch from the city limits on the north to Bryn Mawr on the south, between Western on the east and Pulaski on the west.

Northside College Prep, a CPS magnet school that draws students from throughout the city, is situated within Mather’s boundaries, but Butterfield says its impact on his overall enrollment has been negligible.

Butterfield does not expect to get a new school or even an addition any time soon, so he has extended the school day until 4:20 p.m. and added Saturday classes for struggling students.

He has no intention of relinquishing his prized programs to ease crowding. “I have to attract students, and I’ll compete with anybody,” he says.

Giacomo Mancuso, the board’s director of capital, confirms that Mather and other schools that are overcrowded because of beyond-boundaries recruitment are not getting additions or new buildings any time soon. “The principal can limit that number,” he says.

Steinmetz High School in Belmont-Cragin, which also is overcrowded by choice, is planning to reduce the number of students it accepts from outside, which last year amounted to 622 students. Shaving 187 students off that total would have brought enrollment down to capacity, which is 2,173.

“We’re working with the region and central office on several options to control enrollment,” says Principal Constantine Kiamos.

For one, the school will accept no new outside students for its three magnet programs, International Baccalaureate, JROTC and World Language.

“Our feeder schools can supply us with all [the students] we need and more,” he says. Currently, these programs draw about 300 students from outside the school’s attendance area.

Other incentives

The School Board’s salary schedule and staffing formula also serve as incentives for recruiting more students.

In Chicago, a principal’s salary is determined by two factors: the number of employees supervised and the number of years on the job. In general, the higher a school’s enrollment, the more staff that school is able to hire. An exception is a school with many special education students, where a low student-teacher ratio means more staff with fewer students. Regardless of the circumstances, a larger staff could bring the principal higher pay.

The magic number for most high school principals is 1,500 students. Once a school enrolls more than 1,500 students, it qualifies for two more staff positions, such as a librarian and an assistant principal, and puts the principal into the highest salary category, according to Dave Peterson, assistant to the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.

But Peterson doubts that salary drives student recruitment. He notes that the differential is relatively small.

A first-year principal in the top bracket would earn $93,651; a first-year principal in the next lowest bracket—typically in a school with 1,000 to 1,500 students—would earn $90,179, according to salary rates provided by the association.

However, Richard Gazda, principal of Von Steuben, acknowledges that he takes in a limited number of students over his school’s capacity to qualify for an extra counselor paid out of central office funds.

Familiar pattern

High schools that come by their overcrowding naturally—meaning there are too many neighborhood kids for the building—continue a familiar pattern. “The same areas where we have overcrowding in elementary schools, we have overcrowding in high schools: Foreman, Kelvyn Park and Kelly,” says Mancuso.

Kelly High School, in the city’s Brighton Park neighborhood, is the city’s most overcrowded high school. While its neighborhood enrollment of 1,732 last year exceeded its design capacity by 274 students, the school also took in 531 outside students.

Construction is under way on a seven-story addition to Kelly, which will bring its capacity to 3,261.

However, two nearby communities —Little Village, home of Farragut High, and Pilsen, home of Juarez High —have been promised new schools even though they are not officially overcrowded. Juarez is at capacity, and Farragut is several hundred students under capacity.

According to Tim Martin, the board’s chief operating officer, “Farragut could be filled by neighborhood kids.” Many Farragut-area students choose Juarez and Curie instead, he says.

The School Board made its promises to Little Village and Pilsen in the wake of a hunger strike by Little Village parents, as leaders in those communities argued over what kind of school should go where. The board acknowledged, though, that currently it does not have the money to proceed with either school.

Kelvyn Park, where lunch periods start at 9:08 a.m. and classes run into the evening, has more than a promise on a new building. Bids will be ready to go out beginning next March, says Martin, with construction likely to take 20 to 24 months.

The School Board also is redrawing some attendance boundaries to alleviate overcrowding, according to Mancuso. In April, it reduced the attendance area of Foreman High School in Portage Park by two blocks on the east and two blocks on the west, says Principal Frank Candioto.

The area was shifted to Taft High School in Norwood Park, which has a capacity of more than 2,600 students but enrolled only 1,571 last year.

Candioto, in his second year as principal of Foreman, says he did not ask for the boundary change and doubts it will do much to relieve overcrowding. “I’ll send away fewer kids,” he says.

Despite the crowding, Candioto has accepted some students from outside Foreman’s boundaries—last year, the total was 210, a small percentage of its 1,596 enrollment.

In many of those cases, says Candioto, he took a student that was having trouble at another school or kept students who had moved outside the school’s boundaries.

Otherwise, he characterizes his attendance policy as rigid. “I’ve taken flak for turning kids away,” he says.

Elizabeth Duffrin contributed to this article.