By Juan Perez Jr. and Jennifer Smith Richards
Between classes, Theron Averett Jr. walks past rooms stacked with empty desks and an off-limits area where he's heard there's an empty swimming pool. "I've never seen it," he says. He climbs a stairwell where a rainbow-colored mural carries a two-word message for Tilden High School's students: "Dream Big."
Averett was one of 250 students enrolled this year at the South Side campus, which Chicago Public Schools says has room for about 1,900 students.
Dwindling enrollment has cut Tilden's budget. The school now offers only a small slate of classes. Tilden's football team forfeited most of its season for a lack of players, leaving homecoming without a game to celebrate. Last year's graduating class, on average, scored 14.5 on the ACT, far short of what's considered college-ready.
In Chicago, where funding follows students, Tilden is one of more than a dozen shrinking neighborhood high schools that has been starved of resources, leaving students like Averett to prepare for their futures in largely empty buildings that can make dreaming big a daily struggle.
"Why should we go without because of our student body?" asked Averett, who dreams of attending college and pursuing a career in law enforcement. "I feel like it's unfair. We should get the high school treatment too. But, you know, it is what it is."
Using academic, demographic and enrollment data -- in addition to criteria CPS employed to close 50 schools in 2013 -- the Tribune identified 17 neighborhood high schools hardest hit by dwindling enrollment and poor academics. CPS plans to close three of these buildings, as well as a fourth school, next year to make way for a new, consolidated high school in Englewood. The district is also considering a plan to open a charter school in another of the schools, Hirsch, next fall.
The remaining schools, which include historic programs such as Marshall and Fenger, face an uncertain future.
The plight of these schools is one consequence of a school choice system that offers families a wide array of options beyond the high schools that have long anchored their neighborhoods. At each of the 17 schools, students living within the attendance boundaries scattered to at least 90 different CPS high schools last year. None of the 17 campuses attract more than 13 percent of CPS students assigned to the school.
Nearly all of these 17 high schools are deeply segregated, serving impoverished African-American and Latino students who already struggle to attend and graduate from college at comparable rates to their white or Asian peers. Yet many of these schools cannot offer what are considered basic classes elsewhere, including the bare trio of science courses that will soon be part of a new district graduation requirement.
Now, as many of these schools continue to shrink and Chicago approaches the end of a five-year school closing moratorium, civic and community leaders must weigh whether some of these buildings are too small to succeed.
"This is our future," said Tenara Averett, Theron's mother, a Chicago Transit Authority employee and a member of Tilden's local school council. "If we don't get it right, get it straight, we're going to be lost. They still deserve a chance. They're kids."
In September, Tilden Principal Maurice Swinney fretted over the number of students trickling in through a metal detector for the first day of classes.
CPS projected that 252 children would enroll at Tilden this year. Swinney was concerned he was 10 kids short of the district's estimate. Because CPS doles out money to schools based on enrollment -- CPS this year gave high schools about $5,300 per general education student -- Tilden's annual budget of about $3.9 million faced significant cuts if those kids didn't show up for classes in the first weeks of the new school year.
"Let's say if every kid is about five grand -- you really lose about $50,000 or so," he said while greeting students.
Swinney and his staff spent the following days compiling lists of missing students, calling homes and knocking on neighborhood doors in an effort to preserve resources that would help Tilden make it through the year after several years of budget cuts.
More than 2,300 high school students live inside the school's attendance boundaries -- which stretch north from Garfield Boulevard, past a stretch of industrial sites and Canaryville homes before encompassing Bridgeport's emerging hipster enclave along the South Branch of the Chicago River.
But most have elected to go anywhere but Tilden. Students within the school's attendance boundaries attended 147 different district high schools last year, an overwhelming share of the district's roughly 170 high schools.
Over the last decade, the district has expanded the number of high school options families can choose from, with the growth of independently run schools such as charters and of selective enrollment programs, for example.
At the same time, enrollment has plummeted. From 2006 to 2015, overall CPS enrollment declined by more than 21,000 students. Since the start of the 2015-16 school year, the district has lost close to 21,000 additional students. District officials blame much of the enrollment loss on falling birthrates, slower immigration patterns and the well-documented flight of residents from the city's South and West sides.
The numbers have left Tilden and many other schools facing a slow death.
More than 1,400 students attended Tilden at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year, according to CPS. By the autumn of 2015-16, the number was 311. Then 280 in 2016-17, then 250 by this school year's 20th day of classes. Tilden's enrollment decline in the last decade marks one of the steepest drops recorded at the 17 neighborhood high schools examined by the Tribune.
For homecoming this year, Tilden students organized a raucous pep rally with the school's cheer and dance teams and an alumni-staffed drum line inside the school's auditorium before the big dance.
"We just want to bring some of the spirit back," said Carla Anderson, a 2007 Tilden graduate who joined roughly two dozen other alumni at the celebration.
She was dismayed after a recent tour of the building with her young daughter.
"The spirit is gone," Anderson said. "There was barely any students in the hallway. The classrooms were empty. We want this school to stay open as long as possible, because we know how it goes. There's not many teachers, there's not many students, so there's not a lot of money coming into the school. Once they started taking away the programs, the kids started leaving."
During an interview in an unused office, Swinney said the district needs to either stop opening new schools until enrollment is stabilized or shut down some schools. "I'm not a fan of this because my school would be included in the closure," he said. "But if you close a school, how do you ensure that kids land in the appropriate spaces with the appropriate resources?"
In 2013, amid passionate resistance to school closings, a school utilization commission led by businessman Frank Clark concluded CPS should not close any of its high schools. A preliminary commission report concluded it was "simply too risky to ask high-school-age kids to cross gang lines just to travel to and from school."
Today, Clark is president of the Chicago Board of Education. As the moratorium on school closings is coming to an end, shutting down high schools looks to be back on the table.
CPS declined Tribune requests to interview district CEO Forrest Claypool and Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson for this story.
But district officials have begun to openly discuss the future of underenrolled high schools. CPS plans to close three of the 17 struggling schools identified by the Tribune -- Robeson, Hope and Harper -- along with TEAM Englewood high school at the end of this school year. Students will be assigned to other high schools next fall. A new $85 million high school is expected to be completed in the fall of 2019 but will open in phases starting with a freshman-only class.
Claypool has promoted that plan as a potential path forward to "get kids out of failing schools."
The district did not respond directly to a summary of the Tribune's findings. CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner, in a statement, instead cited the Englewood plan as "a good example of a community facing declining enrollment that took control of its own destiny."
"We will continue to listen to neighborhood leaders with the vision and the will to transform their communities and schools," Bittner said.
CPS this year elected not to cut money from schools that didn't meet enrollment projections. Tilden still lost $28,000 in state and federal aid that's linked to enrollment. Since the end of the 2014 CPS budget year, Tilden's budget has been cut by about $2.6 million.
Combined, the 17 neighborhood high schools have lost more than $59 million in funding since 2014, after the district moved to per-student budgeting, according to CPS data.
Smaller schools, fewer choices
Brestajah Johnson dreams of going to a top law school -- maybe Yale -- and becoming a judge.
But when she looks up the Ivy League school's slim acceptance rate, the Hirsch High School freshman doesn't feel prepared to compete.
"I want to go to a college with dorms. Where I can join sororities and stuff like that," the 14-year-old said. "In my science class, they're still teaching about solid, liquid and gas ... I feel like I'm getting no type of high school experience."
Students at some of Chicago's high-performing, selective enrollment high schools last year had the option to take some 200 different courses. At Lane Tech, the district's largest school with more than 4,400 students, there are multiple levels of foreign language instruction available -- including Mandarin, Japanese, German and Italian. Lane's students chose from a rich menu of science offerings, as well: zoology, evolutionary biology, honors organic chemistry.
Hirsch students had just 37 courses to choose from last school year -- nine of them physical education or JROTC classes -- according to CPS data analyzed by the Tribune. If Hirsch students wanted to study a foreign language, the only options were Spanish I and Spanish II. There were just four English classes. Hirsch students had access to biology and chemistry, but physics wasn't taught at the school last year.
With that curriculum, the school couldn't comply with a new CPS policy that will require next year's freshmen to take one credit each in biology, chemistry and physics to graduate. Janice Jackson, the district's top education officer, said earlier this year that as many as one third of the district's high schools did not yet offer all three science classes.
A huge school like Lane, with its college-like course catalog, is a harsh comparison. But even many other neighborhood high schools offer a more robust selection of courses. At Clemente High School in Humboldt Park, for example, which has about 750 students this year, students could choose from 88 courses, including honors-level literature and physics.
Robeson, Fenger, Hirsch, Harper, Hope, Manley, Gage Park and Richards all offer students fewer than 50 courses.
The shorter list of classes is usually matched by a smaller number of teachers. At Manley, there were 51 regular full-time teachers in 2009, according to district personnel data. Last year there were seven.
"If there are only so many teachers that area able to teach so many classes, what does that mean for the quality of education that these students are getting?" said Lauren Sartain, an analyst with the University of Chicago's Consortium on School Research.
"And it's hard to imagine, in those sorts of school environments, that those kids are going to grow and prosper like how we would want them to given their limited resources, especially with student-based budgeting."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS officials often point to the district's increasing graduation rates, climbing ACT scores, growing college enrollment rates and the numbers of high school freshmen projected to be on track to graduate. Broad race-based gaps are still present, though there's evidence some have narrowed in recent years.
But test scores and graduation rates at the city's most underenrolled schools continue to rank among the lowest in the city as well as the state of Illinois.
A recent study from the University of Chicago's Consortium on School Research concluded that only 44 percent of 2015 high school graduates who scored a 16 or less on the ACT immediately enrolled in a two- or four-year college.
So students at Hirsch like Brestajah face long odds in achieving their goals.
"She wants things on her college applications, that she's involved in this, she's involved in that," said Brestajah's mother, Patrice Williams. "And it's like, Hirsch is not offering that to her. So she feels like it's a lot being left out now. I don't want her to get discouraged, because that's all she talks about: college, college, college."
Another marker of college readiness are Advanced Placement courses, and there's been a steady push to offer more of the classes to schools that serve predominantly black and Latino students.
Many of the 17 high schools offered AP courses. That didn't mean students were prepared for them.
AP test results show 138 students who attended Harper, Hirsch, Robeson, Julian and Corliss high schools took tests for courses that could've earned them college credit or allowed them to skip introductory courses. None of them passed.
No one at Hope or Orr attempted the exams, probably because AP courses weren't offered at those schools last year, according to statewide AP testing data. At Harlan, 81 students tried and only one succeeded. Fewer than a third of the exams earned passing scores at Bowen, Wells, Richards, Fenger, Marshall, Manley and Kelvyn Park.
Not quite half of the 48 Gage Park students who took an AP test passed it. Tilden was the successful standout: Fifteen students there took 17 different tests, and 11 of the tests had passing grades.
On a recent evening, inside a downtown corporate presentation hall, Brestajah and a group of her Hirsch classmates listened as Janice Jackson discussed the future of education at a Chicago Ideas conference panel. Brestajah stood to ask Jackson her opinion on what could be done to "even the playing field" for small schools.
"If you have fewer than 270 students, given what the district provides per student, it's impossible-- and I'm sure your principal would agree-- to offer all of the courses that you would get at a school with 1,200 students," Jackson replied.
Eight of the 17 schools have fewer than 270 students.
Jackson said it's hard to make a case for maintaining a school that is rejected by 80 to 90 percent of the surrounding community. She mentioned the four Englewood schools that are being closed in favor of a single larger school.
"To keep (those schools) open, in my opinion, is more inhumane than deciding to close a school," she said.
"Now I know people disagree with me on that, but it does get to a point when you can't, I can't, look a person in the face and say, 'You're getting a high-quality education,' which is the vision of the district," Jackson said.
Leaving the neighborhood
It might be easy to assume these high schools are shrinking because the surrounding neighborhoods are hollowing out. That's not true.
There were roughly 2,700 high school students living in Gage Park High School's attendance boundary on the Southwest Side last year. Only about 330 attend a school CPS says can comfortably educate 1,100 kids. Most of the other eligible students instead enrolled in 153 other CPS high schools.
Patrice Butler was one of them. She makes a daily round trip from her home near Gage Park to Wells High School in East Ukrainian Village.
"Number one, it doesn't have the best reputation," Patrice said of Gage Park during a recent lunch break inside the parent room at Wells. "They had a bad reputation with violence and whatnot."
Her cousin, an aspiring veterinarian, was shot and killed in a 2014 cell phone robbery yards from what used to be the family's shared home. That helped settle Patrice's decision to find a different school.
"I believe in community, but she needed to get away after they killed my nephew," Patricia Newson-Butler said of her daughter's decision to attend Wells. "She wanted to leave and get away from everything that was familiar, start something new."
Now, on most school days, mother and daughter step out their apartment door, past a sign that says "God Answers Prayers," and begin a roughly hourlong commute aboard two CTA buses, rolling east and then north from their Chicago Lawn two-flat toward a West Town neighborhood sprinkled with luxury homes and upscale taverns.
At 7 a.m. one recent day they reached their first bus stop, where two neighborhood kids were on their way to Dunbar High School. Groups of Latino students piled aboard their second bus, most stepping off outside Juarez High School. The Butlers continued north.
Fifty-two percent of all CPS students do not attend their neighborhood school. Instead, they use the district's school choice options to go to other neighborhood schools, specialty schools, magnet schools, selective schools or charter schools.
The students who live within the school boundaries of the 17 high schools use school choice options even more. There were about 36,000 students in the boundaries of the schools last school year; about 92 percent of them opted to go somewhere else, Tribune analysis of student assignment data shows. That is much higher than in all other high schools in the district, where 70 percent of students opt for a school outside of their attendance area.
The exodus from the 17 high schools over the last two school years sometimes meant students ended up in higher-rated schools. They also frequently opted into other low-performing schools. In fact, about 1,700 of those students went to another of the 17 schools, trading one small, low-performing school for another.
That was the case for Patrice Butler. Wells has the same CPS quality rating as Gage Park. But the Butlers still saw several advantages in attending the North Side school. The school offered a law academy program that featured a successful mock trial team. Patrice also enjoys leaving her neighborhood to learn another part of her city.
"This is sort of out of where we live," said Patrice's mother, who serves on the Wells local school council. "And she has a better chance, you know, over here than she would just staying over where we live at."
The Butlers realize Wells has its own shortcomings. Patrice noticed there weren't a lot of chairs in her chemistry class last year. Some of the furniture that was available, she recalled, was broken. Sometimes there aren't enough textbooks to go around, or students can only work on some projects in class. Sometimes that's also because kids don't bring books back to class, she said.
"I think the teachers make it work, though," Patrice said. "Even though we don't have all of the resources, teachers will go the extra mile and take things out of their own pocket to buy things."
Like Gage Park, Wells faces substantial challenges to secure students and the dollars that follow them. Neighborhood students have spread out to 123 different schools, a combination of selective-enrollment, charter, magnet and neighborhood high schools.
"There are people who live in this community for whom their neighborhood school is not a choice," former Wells Principal Rita Raichoudhuri said during an interview in her emptied-out office, days before she left the high school to take a promotion at the district's downtown headquarters.
Raichoudhuri is proud of the gradual increases Wells' CPS performance rating gained under her leadership, though the building continues to struggle with academics and dwindling enrollment.
"What would happen if everybody took a stance and said, 'I bought my house here, my home prices depend on how well my neighborhood school does. I am sending my child there and I will be a very involved parent,'" she said. "So much is possible if that could happen."
To Raichoudhuri, a "failing" school is one that fails to make any measurable progress each year. If a school is making progress and getting better, she believes it deserves a chance to stay open.
"I am a firm believer in not wasting taxpayer resources, so if a school is stagnant or if it is going downhill and the district has tried intervening ... if all of those things have happened and the school still hasn't moved, then yes, close that school down because those kids deserve better," Raichoudhuri said.
There are five high schools that operate within a mile radius of the Wells campus. But even in such saturated areas, there's still an appetite to open new -- and potentially better -- schools.
Dennis O'Neill, executive director of the Connecting4Communities group, is advocating for opening a high school in the city's soon-to-be abandoned police training headquarters on the Near West side. He said he understands concerns that another high school option could further weaken a school like Wells.
"The flip side of that concern is parents want academically excellent options for their kids," O'Neill said. "The concern of the parents, and being able to keep property taxpayers in the city who want to be here and work here, is of great concern as well."
Even as the schools struggle with enrollment as students choose to leave their neighborhoods, the educators are still fighting for the success of those who do attend. Those successes are hard won.
Dion Grayson walked across a community college stage this summer to collect a diploma as a Manley High School graduate, then set out for college classes and a fast-food job in small-town Missouri.
He began at Manley with 114 other freshmen. His graduation class numbered 46. By his senior year, Grayson was one of just 177 students in a West Side building that has room for an estimated 1,500 children.
Manley didn't teach physics or chemistry to its almost exclusively African-American student population last year. Students had an average ACT score of 14. But the school was close to home, allowing him to stay in his neighborhood rather than "looking over my shoulder just to get a fair education." He graduated in the top 10 of his class.
"My A's might be someone else's C's because of the resources we had," Grayson said during a recent interview. "But I still made it out."
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