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Uptown in the News  

March 3, 2004
Uptown's public schools face eroding enrollment
Uptown Update: Another in a series of stories about changes in the Uptown neighborhood.
By Angela Caputo, Lerner correspondent

While many Far North Side schools are struggling with overcrowding, a decline in the number of children living in Uptown threatens the future of local schools, public-education advocates say.

"The money follows the children," said Schools Initiative Coordinator Andrea Lee, with the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group. "As the number of students declines, programs are cut and sometimes schools are closed."

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of people 17 years old and younger living in Uptown declined by 3,091 (from 13,791 in 1990 down to 10,700 in 2000), a 22 percent drop, according to U.S. Census figures. By contrast, that demographic rose by 5 percent citywide in the same decade.

A smaller youth population puts additional pressure on schools to do more with less.

"You think that, 'Oh, the enrollment is down, so that's good for (relieving) overcrowding," said Sarah Jane Knoy, executive director of the Organization of the NorthEast, a nonprofit coalition that promotes community participation in the public schools. "But it doesn't work like that. As the enrollment declines, so does the funding."

Local School Council Chairman Larry Pride, at Stewart Elementary, 4525 N. Kenmore Ave., said a loss of affordable family housing in Uptown is the culprit. Former neighborhood-school pupils are being pushed to other areas, he said. Over the past four years, as a member of the LSC, Pride said, he has seen how, "Housing changes have really hit students hard."

Last year, at Stockton Elementary, 4420 N. Beacon St., Stewart and Arai Middle School, 900 W. Wilson Ave., enrollment hovered around 40 percent of capacity, which, some worry, is dangerously low.

"A lot of people say at 65 percent to 70 percent of capacity, schools really start to hurt," Lee said. The Chicago Public Schools' capacity formula is based on building design.

Extracurricular programs and teacher retention are in jeopardy as schools try to do more with less, advocates say. And for many parents these factors are turn-offs when deciding where to send their children.

CPS high-school teacher Andrea Redfearin, of the 4700 block of North Dover, said she is struggling to figure out where she will send her son to kindergarten next year. She lives closest to Stockton but is concerned that, "It doesn't have enough after-school programs." Redfearin, though, did say she was encouraged by smaller class sizes at Stockton.

In recent years, CPS administrators have closed 13 schools mostly because of fewer enrollees, according to an analysis by the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group.

Continuing declines in enrollment --- Stockton, Arai and Brenneman, 4251 N. Clarendon Ave., have each lost at-least one-third of their student populations since 1988 --- could force CPS to consolidate Uptown schools if the enrollment isn't bolstered, advocates warn.

The school-board policy for closures requires administrators to conduct a public hearing by May 15 of each year to address community concerns. The board has until the beginning of the next school year to "take final action."

Announcements at the end of the year can catch community members off-guard and leave little time to rally against them, Lee said.

"CPS has not been open and honest with communities, including parents, principals and teachers," Lee said. "A lot of people don't even know that their school won't be open in the fall."

The Neighborhood Capital Budget Group recommends that the communities be alerted sooner to try to work out some of the problems targeted schools face. Lee said last-minute disclosure can especially be a "slap in the face" to LSCs, which should be involved in the decision.

Activists at Stewart are trying to turn the underutilization of their school into a positive, according to Pride.

"(Stewart) is starting to become a community-based school, which is bringing in new resources," he said. Businesses and local nonprofits have become more engaged in the school, which, he said, is helping to stabilize its future.

Lee said, "There is a lot of opportunity" in creating more community-oriented schools. "We hope that (schools) will repopulate, and this is a way to hang on until they do."

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