By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
Chicago Public Schools presented its 10-Year Educational Facilities Master Plan to community members on a recent Thursday evening at a meeting hosted by Hyde Park Community Area Residents Empowering Schools (HPCARES).
CPS officials will meet with several community groups citywide to present the 10-year plan, which is required by the School Actions and Facilities Plan Law of 2011. Todd Babbitz, chief transformation officer for CPS, presented the information in the plan for Hyde Park and asked for feedback.
“Whether you agree [with CPS school actions] or not there has been a sharp decline in population and number of students in each school building on the South and West sides,” Babbitz said. “On the northwest and southwest sides enrollment numbers have been increasing and that has created overcrowding.”
He said CPS wants to provide parents with high quality school options and addressed the phase out of Canter Middle School, 4959 S. Blackstone Ave., by saying that CPS favors the pre-K through 8th grade model because research shows that children do better with fewer school changes.
Babbitz also said that CPS is looking to see if special education students can be taught closer to home by bringing special programs to neighborhood schools.
“We’re trying to close the deficit gap. If we don’t make changes to cost structure we will not be balanced,” Babbitz said.
According to CPS, which pulled much of its data from the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census, the current school utilization rate of Hyde Park is 79 percent with four — Canter, Kozminski, Ray and Reavis — of its eight schools categorized as underutilized. The 2000 and 2010 Census show a 23.1 percent decrease in children ages 0 to 19 residing in the area. Between 2006 and 2013, K through 12 enrollment has decreased by 43 percent. There has been a 12.1 percent increase in pre-K enrollment, a 9.7 percent decrease in K through 8 and a 6.4 percent increase in high school enrollment. Between 2009 and 2013, enrollment has decreased by 1.7 percent. Pre-K decreased by 2.1 percent, K through 8 decreased by 6.0 percent and high school enrollment increased by 6.7 percent.
In its 10-year plan, CPS projects that there will be a decrease of 2.3 percent of Hyde Park residents who will send their children to public schools. This conclusion is based in part on the fact that that nearly half of enrollment in the Hyde Park area is supported by students who live outside of the neighborhood and also that CPS may lose more students to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, which is scheduled to complete expansion by fall 2013 and be able to support up to 2,050 Pre-K through 12 students.
Babbitz planned to ask the community several questions that evening, but his first question of “how do we get more area parents to enroll their children in public neighborhood schools” seemed to dominate the conversation.
Hyde Park resident and parent Ann Tobbe said better presentation is one way CPS could get local parents interested in their neighborhood schools as an option.
“My daughter will be going to Bret Harte this fall,” Tobbe said. “It is dismal looking on the outside.”
Tobbe said for many years she never considered the school as an option because it is unkempt and often heard neighbors make jokes about Bret Harte being a safety school for those who couldn’t get into Lab.
She said after visiting the school she realized that it was a good option for her daughter and said the principal, curriculum and the school’s interior look are great. She said she wants to work with others to help change the reputation of the school.
“Do you really expect smart kids to go to a school that looks broken down?” Tobbe said. “In order to get people to cross that line, the school has to improve its look.”
Diversity and being able to walk their children to school was another set of values that Hyde Park parents mentioned to Babbitz.
Thara Brown, whose 4-year-old will attend school at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School next year because the family couldn’t get a pre-school spot at Ray or Bret Harte, said CPS needs good quality schools that are more racially diverse.
“People come to this community because of its diversity. That should be reflected more in the schools,” Brown said.
Brown said, while she wouldn’t want to pay the high Lab School tuition, which is about $30,000 a year, she would be willing to pay something to make sure her child had the proper resources in school.
“Costs could be on a sliding scale based on family income,” Brown said.
Joy Clendenning said CPS needs to have more publicity for its neighborhood schools.
“I see charter [school] ads on buses,” Clendenning said. “We need support for publicity for our schools.”
Emily Fong, Shoesmith parent and Reavis LSC member, said CPS policies and school actions are causing parents to leave the city.
“Parents — tax payers — are moving to Champaign and Indiana because of decisions that are being made,” Fong said.
Consistency and a value on culture were also important to Hyde Park parents.
“We get sold new programs and then they are taken away before they can even be measured,” Clendenning said. “Let’s stick with something for 10 years.”
Angela Paranjape, whose child will soon be attending school and whose husband recently lost his teaching position at Canter, said if schools would focus on good cultural practices, she trusts that her child would excel academically along the way.
“I don’t care about testing, I care about school culture,” Paranjape said. “We’ve gotten in such a competitive nature in education that we’re not creating schools that we want to see.”
Community member Deb Haas said class size is also a major concern.
“We are a community that cares about class size,” Haas said. “Small class size is important … more than test scores and fancy program names. Ample research supports the benefits of smaller class sizes, particularly for elementary school students.”
After the meeting, Haas said she challenged Babbitz with the question of class size because the assumptions of the facilities plan will reduce the number of classrooms available and thereby reduce or eliminate the possibility that neighborhood schools could ever get to class sizes that researchers have found to be beneficial and many parents think are desirable — and that parents of private school students take for granted — because there simply will not be space available for the number of 25-student classrooms needed to accommodate students.
“If we worked under the assumptions of this more reasonable class size then most, if not all, our schools would be fully utilized and in some cases they would be overcrowded as most people feel they are,” Haas said.
Babbitz said CPS is taking comments from each community into consideration and will complete a final draft of the 10-Year Educational Facilities Master Plan by Oct. 1.