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Before closing a school, CPS will try to boost its enrollment under new policy

Demonstrators protest school closings in 2016. | Sun-Times file photo

Demonstrators protest school closings in 2016. | Sun-Times file photo

As a five-year block on closing schools ends, Chicago Public Schools has agreed to consider other ways to fill schools that are losing enrollment before shutting them down.

The unanimous vote Wednesday by the city’s school board puts the public schools system in line with a new state law aimed at slowing school closures. A record 50 closings enacted in 2013 targeted schools CPS deemed were half empty, mostly in African-American neighborhoods.

Now, when schools under 70 percent capacity lose 10 percent of their student body for two straight years, CPS must try to increase enrollment by adding programs, redrawing the school’s boundaries or by filling empty building space with other tenants. District officials also can’t expand other schools that could make the underenrollment worse — although government-funded, privately-managed charter schools are exempt from that restriction under an exception written into state law.

The five present board members did not discuss any of the proposed changes to CPS policy during the public meeting. Instead, in an email, CPS spokesman Michael Passman called the policy “the next step” to support schools with shrinking populations.

He wouldn’t yet say which or how many CPS schools are considered underenrolled. CPS hasn’t yet announced its official 2018-19 enrollment formally counted weeks ago on Oct. 1.

As enrollment shrinks districtwide — it was about 402,000 in 2011 but 371,000 in the last school year — district leaders have been helping schools that have been hit the hardest. CPS officials have stopped measuring charter school enrollments relative to their available space.

CPS set aside $10 million for small schools so they could fund a full curriculum and hang on to their students. Of the 500-plus schools CPS operates directly, 129 got some of that extra funding this year. Another $5 million was budgeted for schools that saw sudden enrollment drops so their budgets wouldn’t dramatically decrease.

Still, CPS has earmarked millions in capital money for another brand new high school on the Near West Side, and is currently weighing applications for at least four new charter schools the board will vote on in December.

Schools CEO Janice Jackson won’t commit to halting all closings, vowing only not to undertake them in bulk and with community support. She told supporters of the former DuSable High School Wednesday that she was open to their proposal to merge two tiny schools operating in the historic Bronzeville building, but first wanted the school’s parents to weigh in.
CPS is holding more than a dozen meetings across the city to give the public a say in what their neighborhoods need, using data from a newly released Annual Regional Analysis. Jackson also opened a formal application for principals to petition for the programs they want in their schools, in contrast to past practice when central office staffers made those decisions.