For the Record: Enrollment trends and school utilization

December 13, 2012

When rolling out new data on school utilization, CPS officials emphasized that the number of children in the city has plummeted by 145,000 over the past 12 years, citing the figure as the major reason why the district has so many empty schools.

Meanwhile, a chorus of teachers union and community activists who oppose closings (and some media outlets) have pointed out contradictory data: The population of children in the city may be down, but CPS enrollment has declined by only about 32,000 students since the 1999-2000 school year.

Both sides have a point—but not the entire story. A closer look at enrollment trends explains why the district has 330 schools that are considered under-utilized, with 136 half-empty.

 A drop in black student population: Almost 80 percent of under-utilized schools are predominantly African American. Since 2000, the number of black students in CPS declined by 63,000. In addition, 29,000 black students now attend charter schools, and black students comprise 58 percent of all students in charter schools.  

More charters in black communities: Thirteen community areas in Chicago have more than 10 under-utilized schools. In those neighborhoods, CPS over the past decade has opened 46 charter schools. North Lawndale has the most under-utilized schools, at 19, and has gotten eight charter schools, more than any other community area in the city.

CPS leaders have focused on opening charter schools in neighborhoods that needed “quality” options—“quality” being most often defined as a charter—with little regard as to whether the demographics would support another school. As a result, many charter schools ended up in neighborhoods where the traditional schools were already shedding students.

The end result: Traditional CPS schools have lost about 92,000 black students, either through demographic shifts or a shift to enrollment in charters. 

Latino enrollment shift: Latinos are the only demographic group that has experienced an increase in student population. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of Latino students rose by 28,000. But 18,000 Latinos are now enrolled in charters—which means a net gain of about 10,000 students for traditional schools.

School Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz, speaking on the CAN-TV show Chicago Newsroom, said some charter school operators are aware of the demographic shifts in the city and therefore aren’t building structures meant to last 100 years. In particular, UNO President Juan Rangel has told Ruiz that he isn’t building for the long haul. UNO serves more than 6,100 Latino students.