‘No new classrooms in 38 years’

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Overcrowding is often considered to be primarily a concern in Latino schools and neighborhoods, but a small yet significant number of overcrowded elementary schools are predominantly African American, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data for the current school year.

About one out of four, or 32, overcrowded schools is majority-black the analysis found. About half are predominantly Hispanic; largely white and integrated schools make up the remaining one-fourth.

In general, overcrowding in African-American schools is not heavily concentrated by community. Of the 36 predominantly black communities, only four are overcrowded; in comparison, nearly half (10 of 22) of predominantly Latino communities are overcrowded.

One exception is Austin, which in 1995 had seven overcrowded schools, the second-highest number of any neighborhood in the city, according to Catalyst’s analysis. But by 2005, only two Austin schools were overcrowded, and the community’s space utilization rate (a measure of overcrowding) had declined dramatically. Austin received the most money for new elementary school construction of any Chicago neighborhood over the last 10 years.

Theresa Welch, education organizer for the South Austin Coalition, credits local grassroots groups with exercising political muscle to get construction relief. The latest victory is the new, larger DePriest Elementary.

Welch, however, points out that there’s still work to be done because “some of the schools that were built were not big enough.”

10 seats, 200 kids

Among overcrowded black schools, three out of four are neighborhood schools. The rest are schools of choice, such as McDade Classical in Chatham and Vanderpoel Magnet in Beverly, that can select which students, and how many, to admit.

The popularity of such schools drives up enrollment, principals say, until a school reaches the overcrowding threshold.

Maureen Connolly, principal at Kellogg Elementary in Beverly, says her school could only accommodate a fraction of the children whose parents sought to enroll them under transfer provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“Last year we had 10 slots and 200 parents came to the meetings,” she says. NCLB transfers are the only way children outside the attendance area can enroll in an overcrowded school.

While Kellogg is a neighborhood school, it also has an International Baccalaureate Middle Years program (a rigorous academic curriculum overseen by the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Baccalaureate Organization), which makes it an attractive choice. Because of overcrowding, however, Kellogg cannot accept students outside its attendance area into the IB program starting this fall.

Like other principals whose schools have good reputations, Connolly suspects some parents register children using false addresses, which drives up enrollment. But ferreting out fraudulent enrollment is difficult, and even when discovered, schools and the district are reluctant to drive up mobility by pushing students out. (CPS policy is to allow such students to stay at a school until the end of the school year.)

Construction on hold

As in other communities, construction of new schools and additions in black neighborhoods has ground to a halt due to lack of capital funding. Miles Davis and Langston Hughes elementary schools are on hold, as well as additions for Shoop, Randolph, Deneen and Brooks College Prep.

“We’ve been working on the project at least 10 years,” says Wayne Samuels, local school council president at Shoop, which, at 77 percent of capacity, is just shy of the official overcrowding threshold. “They gave us a new campus park and we tore it up to put on the addition. I don’t know who’s to blame. But at this point we’re just trying to get it done.”

At Deneen—a school that is not overcrowded but lacks classrooms for special education students—construction crews “opened a hole up, and now we find it’s not going to be built,” says 6th Ward Ald. Freddrenna Lyle. “We’ve not had additional classroom space in this ward in 38 years.”

While she and other aldermen and principals acknowledge the fiscal constraints, they also say the board could have done a better job of capital planning.

Alan Berger, principal of McKay Elementary in Chicago Lawn, points out that his school quickly outgrew an addition built in 1998 and remains overcrowded, enrolling 1,647 students in facilities designed to house 1,500. Another 400 kids who live in the school’s attendance area are bused out to other schools.

Says Berger, “The point with all this new construction should have been to anticipate the changing population so schools don’t become overcrowded.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.