Not too long ago, public elementary schools in Pilsen were overcrowded and underperforming.
Today, it’s the opposite: Despite consistent academic gains over the last decade, Pilsen’s public elementary schools are losing hundreds of students a year as working-class families leave the gentrifying neighborhood in droves.
An analysis of Chicago Public Schools data shows the number of students in kindergarten through 8th grade at Pilsen’s public elementary schools dropped 40% from 2005 to 2019, compared to a 20% decline across the district in those 15 years.
Enrollment at six of the 10 public elementary schools in Pilsen and neighboring Heart of Chicago fell by more than a third. Three schools saw enrollment drops greater than 50%.
The only charter school in the neighborhood — Bartolome de Las Casas Elementary, part of the Acero Schools network — has enrolled around 275 students a year since opening in 2006. A spokesperson for Acero said two-thirds of the school’s students live in Pilsen.
Across all of Pilsen’s elementary schools, early grades saw the sharpest declines: In 2005, the schools enrolled nearly 1,900 students in kindergarten, first grade and second grade. This year, they enrolled less than 950.
Eight of the nine non-charter elementary schools in Pilsen are “underutilized” according to CPS, meaning they enroll less than 70% of what the district considers to be the school’s ideal number of students. Those eight schools would need to enroll an extra 1,400 students to meet the threshold. Two schools would have to double their student body.
Because CPS largely funds schools depending on how many students enroll, Pilsen’s elementary schools have lost several teachers and educational programs in recent years.
Despite these losses, the schools are academically on track.
On average, students at Pilsen’s elementary schools outperformed their peers across CPS in English, math and science standardized tests in 2018, state figures released in October show.
Students at Pilsen schools have also improved in reading and math comprehension at a better rate than the national average since 2011, according to CPS’ primary assessment measure for students in grades 2-8.
CPS recently rated seven Pilsen elementary schools as “Level 1+” or “Level 1,” the top two ratings out of five in the district. The rest are rated “Level 2+,” the third-highest rating.
Nine out of 10 students in Pilsen’s public elementary schools come from low-income households and more than 95% of them identify as Hispanic or Latino.
Parents, principals, teachers, school staff and students interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times blamed rising rents for pushing lower- and working-class families out of the neighborhood, leading to the drastic decline in enrollments.
“My husband’s friend let us rent the basement apartment in his building for $600 a month. After he sold it, the new landlord wanted to charge us $1,200,” said Maria de la Luz Guerrero, a mother of three daughters who lived in Pilsen and attended Whittier Elementary before moving to Gage Park in 2016.
“We didn’t want to leave,” Guerrero said. “We looked around the neighborhood for a new place, but couldn’t find anything.”
Around 70% of Pilsen residents are renters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Over the last two years, the median rental price for a two-bedroom apartment in Pilsen listed by real estate agents hovered around $1,600 a month while three-bedrooms went for an average of $2,050 a month, according to data obtained by the Sun-Times.
SINKs and DINKs
Families like Guerrero’s are increasingly being replaced by single- and double-income households with no kids — “SINKs and DINKs” — once they leave Pilsen.
Estimates from the Census Bureau analyzed by the Sun-Times show the number of family households in the neighborhood dipped by 26% from 2000 to 2017.
Meanwhile, one-person households rose by 30% and the number of two-or-more person non-family households nearly doubled.
Overall, the population in Pilsen dropped by around 11,000 from 2000 to 2017, the latest year for which census estimates are available.
“What the census tells us is that many if not most of those leaving the neighborhood are working-class families,” said Winifred Curran, an urban geographer at DePaul University whose work focuses on gentrification.
As families left, Pilsen got richer: Census Bureau figures show the median income in the neighborhood rose from around $35,000 in 2010 to $45,000 in 2017, adjusted for inflation.
The number of kids living in Pilsen who aren’t enrolled in its public elementary schools also appears to have risen in recent years.
In 2017, the Census Bureau estimated there were around 4,300 children ages 5 to 14 living in Pilsen, the ages kids usually attend elementary school. But at the start of the 2017-18 school year, Pilsen’s public elementary schools enrolled less than 3,600 students.
That gap of roughly 700 students is nearly twice as big as it was in 2010.
It’s unclear where those students end up going to school. Many could be enrolled in charter and magnet elementary schools around the city. Others go to private and parochial schools and some are homeschooled.
Undoubtedly, however, many families who’ve recently moved to Pilsen don’t send their kids to their neighborhood public school, Curran said.
“Public schools are usually the last places to gentrify,” Curran said. “Oftentimes gentrifying families have the means to send their kids to private school or get them into the magnets.
“It’s a double-whammy: New families come to the neighborhood and increase the housing prices but don’t leverage their political capital to improve the local public schools because that’s not where many of them are sending their kids.”
Basements, boiler rooms and hallways
Pilsen historically served as a port of entry for immigrant families in need of affordable housing.
But by the 1950s, Pilsen’s schools were severely overcrowded. Reports from the time show teachers often held classes in basements, boiler rooms, cafeterias, coat closets, gyms and hallways.
“Pilsen-area grade schools share a problem with The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe,” began one report in the Chicago Daily Tribune from 1958. “They have so many children, they don’t what to do.”
Many of the new kids in the neighborhood came from Mexican families displaced from the Near West Side to make way for the Dan Ryan Expressway in the 1950s and the University of Illinois at Chicago in the 1960s.
Pete Gonzalez, 63, his six siblings and their parents moved to the east side of Pilsen in 1957 but were forced out two years later because of the Dan Ryan. They moved to the Taylor Street area only to be displaced again in 1963 as UIC expanded southward. The family returned to Pilsen, this time on the west side of the neighborhood, and stayed until 1979.
“We were just one of hundreds of families who moved to Pilsen because of the construction of UIC,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez attended Peter Cooper Elementary in the ’60s.
“There were probably 40 students in every classroom,” he said.
Overcrowding at Cooper fostered violence, said Gonzalez, who remembers fights and even stabbings in the lunchroom.
The schools reached a breaking point in the late sixties and 1970s as tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants came to Chicago with most of them settling in Pilsen and neighboring Little Village.
By 1986, all but “two or three” of the 36 most overcrowded schools in Chicago were in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, the Sun-Times reported then. And by 1990, the number of Latino students in CPS topped 111,000 — twice the number enrolled in 1970.
Parents and community leaders pushed the Chicago Board of Education to build new schools in Latino neighborhoods to alleviate overcrowding.
After years of protests, the Board built two elementary schools in Pilsen: Irma C. Ruiz Elementary and Manuel Perez Jr. Elementary, both of which opened in 1989.
Ruiz and Perez were each built to serve around 1,000 students. But even after they opened at capacity, hundreds of kids in Pilsen were still being taught in overcrowded classrooms.
One school in the neighborhood — Josiah Pickard Elementary — enrolled more than 900 students in 1989, nearly double the amount it was built to hold. And by 1994, more than 400 students within Ruiz’s attendance boundary had to be bused outside of Pilsen because all of its elementary schools were full, the Sun-Times reported then.
Pilsen kids were bused to schools outside the neighborhood as late as 2008. Back then, the neighborhood’s elementary schools enrolled around 5,000 students. This year, the schools took in less than 3,300 students.
“In the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and even in the 1990s and 2000s we were fighting for respect, for CPS to understand we needed more services in this neighborhood,” said Mary Gonzales, 78, a Pilsen activist and organizer who helped push the city to build Perez and Ruiz.
“Now the costs of living here are so high. ... What happens to younger families who are just getting started? They don’t have a prayer.”
Where are they going?
More than 3,500 students transferred out of an elementary school in Pilsen into a school district outside Chicago since 2006, according to CPS records obtained by the Sun-Times.
The majority of those students ended up in working-class suburbs like Berwyn and Cicero. Many students moved to nearby states, especially Indiana. About 600 students left the country altogether with almost all of them going to Mexico.
But most students who leave Pilsen’s elementary schools enroll in another public school in Chicago. It’s hard to track down where exactly those students end up because they’re in the same school district and CPS is barred from sharing any student-identifying information.
Anecdotally, however, parents and community leaders say families are moving to more affordable neighborhoods on the South and West sides when they leave Pilsen.
“I keep hearing about people moving to Brighton Park, Marquette Park, Gage Park, Back of the Yards — you know, places like that, where it’s cheaper to live,” said Leobarda Garcia, a mother of two kids enrolled at Cooper Elementary who’s lived in Pilsen for nearly 15 years.
Chris Montijo, 15, has also noticed a lot of his friends are leaving Pilsen.
Montijo graduated from Pilsen Community Academy in 2018. His 8th grade class was made up of 32 students. His kindergarten class in 2010 had 80 kids.
“Yeah, a lot of my friends moved to different neighborhoods, mostly down south, but I thought it was normal,” he said.
Montijo’s family is planning on leaving the neighborhood soon, too.
“We’re leaving because of the rents,” he said.
‘We didn’t have a team last year’
Public schools in Chicago are largely funded depending on how many students they enroll.
For Pilsen’s schools, that formula spells disaster.
All nine of Pilsen’s non-charter public elementary schools have lost teachers and support staff — librarians, nurses, and social workers — as enrollments declined in recent years.
“I remember when I started here there were six teachers teaching 3rd grade and all the classrooms had at least 30 students. Now we’re down to three teachers in 3rd grade and each classroom has less than 30 students,” said Wanda Reyes, a bilingual teacher who’s been at Cooper Elementary since 1998.
Cooper enrolled 410 students in K-8 this school year, down from 780 in 2005.
Also in peril are sports and extra-curricular groups.
Janine Delgado was a volleyball coach at Walsh Elementary for six years until 2018.
“We didn’t have a team last year because we didn’t have enough girls to play in 7th and 8th grade,” she said.
Walsh enrolled 258 students in K-8 this school year, down from 532 in 2005.
Stephanie Farmer, a sociologist at Roosevelt University who recently coauthored a report on Chicago’s student-based funding formula, said under-enrolled schools are trapped in a “vicious cycle” that pushes families away.
“Once budgets contract, schools are forced into hard choices. Often these choices become a matter of cutting teachers and support lines for students. Once schools engage in cutting these positions, the schools begin to look like they’re under-resourced, which then pushes more parents away,” Farmer said.
“It’s a downward spiral,” she continued. “Parents are always going to make the best decision for their kids.”
Tania Ibarra, 44, has seen firsthand how the Chicago’s student-based funding formula hurts one Pilsen school.
Ibarra takes care of two of her grandchildren: Sandra, a first-grader at Ruiz Elementary, and her older brother Frank, a second-grader at Ruiz.
Frank started out in kindergarten at Whittier Elementary, which is a couple blocks away from the family’s home, but Ibarra pulled him out before the end of the year because the school didn’t have a librarian or a full-time nurse.
“My grandson is autistic and has ADHD. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving him there,” she said.
Sandra is asthmatic, “and no one at Whittier had the proper training to administer her medication in case of an emergency,” Ibarra said. So she sent her to Ruiz instead.
Whittier enrolled 184 students in K-8 this school year, down from 532 in 2005 — the steepest enrollment drop across all of Pilsen’s elementary schools.
Farmer argues CPS should provide each school with a base level of teachers and support staff to cover essential programs. “It’s the only way for schools with declining enrollment to maintain the quality of education,” she said.
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), whose ward encompasses most of Pilsen, agrees.
“We need to start allocating resources based on need, on equity. We need to question the funding formulas,” he said. “Because if we maintain the same formula ... the trend will continue.”
In a statement, CPS said it is “committed to examining its school funding formulas” so it can “ensure schools have resources to meet the changing demographics and needs of their students.”
The district also said it will “engage and solicit feedback” throughout this school year to “ensure that voices of educators and community members are taken into consideration.”
Pilsen Community Academy and Jungman Elementary were on the chopping block in 2012 when former Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he would seek to close dozens of under-enrolled public schools across the South and West sides.
Both schools survived Emanuel’s cuts, but the risk of losing two of the neighborhood’s oldest public schools worried Pilsen parents and community organizers.
In 2016, the Pilsen Education Task Force — formed in 2006 by the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council — began to devise a plan to boost enrollments and save the schools.
The plan? Transform Pilsen’s nine non-charter elementary schools into specialized magnet schools focussed on college and career readiness with open enrollments for kids who live within the schools’ attendance boundary.
The goal? Attract parents in Pilsen and across the city who don’t send their kids to public school.
“We believe that we can reverse the tide of declining student enrollment at the majority of our Pilsen schools,” the group wrote in a letter to CPS officials in February 2018.
“The strength of our new vision would rely on redefining the meaning of community to Pilsen and non-Pilsen residents,” the letter says.
“Innovative marketing approaches would be focused on individuals such as the ‘commuter parent.’ An example of such a parent is one who may work downtown or in Pilsen and that would normally not look to a Pilsen (or public) school as an option.”
The specialization plan has already paid off for some schools.
Jungman Elementary became a science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) magnet school in 2018 thanks to a federal grant. And in March, Perez Elementary received funding from CPS to expand its Mandarin- and Spanish-language programs.
Whittier Elementary — the school with the fewest students in Pilsen — is vying to become the first dual-language Spanish magnet elementary school on the South Side.
The magnet designation would allow the school to bus in students from other parts of the city, including those who recently moved out of Pilsen but would like to stay at Whittier.
That prospect excites Veronica Brito, 29, a single mom of three girls who attend Whittier.
Brito and her daughters moved into a one-bedroom apartment near 21st Street and Western Avenue six years ago. Brito paid $500 a month for the unit, but her landlord upped the rent to $700 earlier this year.
“I had no choice. I had to leave,” she said.
Brito and her daughters moved into a two-bedroom apartment near 47th Street and Ashland Avenue in Back of the Yards. Brito splits the $850 monthly rent with her new partner. She drives her daughters to Whittier every morning before going to work.
“I didn’t want to take them out of Whittier. I like the teachers here. I like the school. They get to learn Spanish, which makes it easier for me to talk with them. It’d be nice if a school bus could pick them up instead,” she said.
Still, turning Pilsen’s elementary schools into magnets is unlikely to reverse the trend of declining enrollments without more measures, including increasing affordable housing.
“You can’t talk about education policy without talking about housing policy. There’s no way around it,” Ald. Sigcho-Lopez said.
Loss of community
As Pilsen schools seek to attract more students and retain the ones already enrolled, the loss of families in the neighborhood is palpable for many longtime residents.
Alexandra Castelo, 25, has lived her entire life on the same block near Dvorak Park. She graduated from Walsh Elementary in 2008 as did her mother in the 1990s. Castelo now sends her two children Alani, 5, and Oliverio, 4, to Walsh.
Castelo remembers Walsh having a robust student body and a bilingual program. The school now lacks both. “There aren’t enough students to fill those classrooms,” she said.
Still, she plans on keeping her children enrolled at Walsh. “We got a new principal last year,” Patricia J. Harper Reynolds, “and she’s doing a fantastic job,” she said.
But Castelo laments that the school — and Pilsen as a whole — are losing kids every year.
“It’s complicated,” Castelo said. “As a kid, my mom wouldn’t even let me walk to the corner store because she was worried about gangbangers. Now it’s not as bad as it used to be, but so many families from around here have left.
“I like that my kids can play in front of my house and I don’t have to worry too much. But now they don’t have anyone to play with.”
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps members of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.