Chicago Public Schools: Austin schools underused

A dozen could face closure

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By Ellyn Fortino

AustinTalks.org

Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett agrees with a school-closing panel's recommendation not to shutter underutilized high schools, high-performing schools or ones in the process of adding a grade next year.

That appears to spare Douglass, Austin Polytechnical Academy, Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, VOISE Academy, Michele Clark and Banner West Academy.

High-performing Level 1 elementary schools, including George Rogers Clark and Ellington are also likely off the table.

That leaves about a dozen other schools in Austin that are below capacity and could face closure, according to an AustinTalks analysis of CPS data.

Fourteen out of Austin's 19 public elementary and middle schools are underutilized.

Just five of Austin's schools — Howe, Leland, Hay and two charters, Catalyst Circle Rock and Plato Learning Academy — are effectively utilized, according to CPS standards, and will likely not be on the chopping block.

CPS considers schools underutilized when they have an enrollment of less than 80 percent of ideal capacity, which is the number of homeroom classrooms, multiplied by 30 students.

But the CPS numbers have come under fire by Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, a group that did its own analysis of underused schools recently and found CPS' formula "works to both exaggerate underutilization and underreport overcrowding."

According to the Raise Your Hand's "apples to apples" analysis, 25 students multiplied by the number of homeroom classrooms is an ideal class size.

Byrd-Bennett wrote in a Jan. 8 letter to Raise Your Hand disagreeing that the homeroom multiplier should be changed from 30 to 25.

 

Too many seats, too few students

 

Using CPS numbers, four of Austin's schools — Armstrong, Ellington, May and ACT Charter — are less than 50 percent full.

And Austin's remaining schools aren't off the hook yet either.

The recently opened ACT is 18 percent utilized and has the lowest enrollment of all Austin schools. The charter school will likely be spared, however, because fifth-graders started at the school in August, and it's in the process of adding a grade each year up to eighth grade.

Under state law, CPS doesn't have the ability to close charter schools based on utilization, said CPS spokesperson Kalyn Belsha.

CPS has a rigorous process in place for charter contract renewals that looks at academics, compliance and fiscal management to determine the school's renewal status recommendation and conditions for renewal, Belsha added.

Across the city, CPS says it has too many seats, too few students and a looming $1 billion deficit.

About 50 percent of all CPS schools are underutilized and nearly 140 are more than half-empty, according to CPS.

Unlike last year when academic performance was the main factor in school actions, utilization is the key indicator for closures this time around as CPS attempts to right-size the district.

CPS will hold two community meetings in each school network, including Austin-North Lawndale, for community input, beginning Jan. 28.

The community meetings "are meant to give our parents and school communities additional opportunities to provide us with more granular information about their individual schools that our own data may not have captured," wrote CPS spokeswoman Ziegler.

Austin-North Lawndale's first meeting will be Jan. 31 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Friendship Baptist Church, 5200 W. Jackson Blvd.

The second meeting is Feb. 13 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Greater Galilee Baptist Church, 1308 S. Independence Blvd.

At February's meeting, CPS promises it will provide a list of schools based on the commission's recommendations; that way communities can provide input about the remaining schools that could be closed.

Some community members from Austin have been attending the Board of Education's monthly meetings. The next meeting is Jan. 23 at 10:30 a.m. at CPS' headquarters, 125 S. Clark Street on the 5th floor.

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