Cristina Hernandez is a big proponent of public education: She graduated from Jose Orozco Clemente Community Academy in Pilsen. Now she has three children in Chicago Public Schools, the oldest a seventh grader.
But she isn’t planning to send them to neighboring Kelly High School, rated a Level 2, the second-lowest on Chicago schools’ five-tier rankings.
“We’re struggling with high schools. Unless you score into a selective-enrollment school or you are lucky enough to get in a charter school,” students end up at their neighborhood high school, said Hernandez, who is chair of the Local School Council at James Ward Elementary School.
That’s why some South Side parents have been pushing the district to open a new high school in the South Loop. But that has created its own controversy: The site would displace more than 700 students at the top-rated National Teachers Academy, and likely pull students from neighborhood schools like Kelly.
The question of enrollment in neighborhood schools — and the forces pushing South Side students to attend schools elsewhere — dominated a forum Monday exploring ways to put top-rated schools and programs within reach of all Chicago students.
Parents and other speakers called for more resources for neighborhood schools to stem the tide of students fleeing South Side elementary and high schools.
Nearly 100 residents, educators and school district leaders convened Monday at Thomas Kelly High School to raise questions and discuss findings of a districtwide report on enrollment trends, school quality, parent choice and program offerings.
Students in the area, which after the Greater Stony Island Region has the city’s second-highest number of students attending high schools elsewhere, soon will have the option to attend a new South Loop high school, which could further shrink the local high school’s attendance boundaries and enrollment.
Discussing the report, known as the Annual Regional Analysis, offers communities a chance to comment on academic changes they’d like to see in their region. Meetings around town have spurred conversations about school quality, barriers to education equity — and fears of painful decisions to come amid rapidly shrinking enrollment. The school district presented hard numbers behind the problematic trend of shrinking neighborhood schools.
Parents and community members spoke to the difficulty of finding desirable high school options.
Why does the region have no Level 1 or Level 1-plus high schools, parents asked, noting the dearth prompts families to seek schools elsewhere.
The region includes the Back of the Yards, Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Brighton Park, and Armour Square neighborhoods.
Last year, when the data was collected, the area had 21,741 students at 33 schools. Three-quarters of the students were Latino, while 14 percent were Asian.
According to the report, 87 percent of elementary students in the area attend school in the region, compared with 60 percent at the district level.
But those proportions change dramatically in high school. Only 41 percent of high school students stay in the region, compared with 55 percent districtwide. Almost 1,000 students from what the report labels the Greater Stockyards region go to selective enrollment schools outside the area.
A new high school for the South Loop, slated to open next school year, would also draw from the South Side, possibly exacerbating the drain of students to newer, better equipped schools outside the area. It would also shrink the attendance boundary of the area’s Tilden High School.
The report’s Greater Stockyards designation encompasses Back of the Yards High School, a Level 1-plus school; Kelly High School, which is Level 2; and Tilden, which is Level 2. The area also has one charter and one options high school.
“Right now, we have more schools in our district than we did when we had almost 100,000 more students,” said Chief Education Officer LaTanya D. McDade at the hearing. “How do we deal with the decrease in enrollment?”
She also said the meetings were not connected to any plans for school closings, which have been one way Chicago has dealt with under-enrolled schools in minority neighborhoods. “We want to make sure that your voice is heard within your community.”
Hernandez would like to see investments that would boost the rating of schools in the area.
“Be more equitable. I don’t understand why we have so many Level 1 elementary schools but we have to look outside for a good high school for our kids. I don’t see that as fair,” Hernandez said.
Many Chinese-American parents in the area, meanwhile, opt to place their children in private schools because they offer more Chinese language options, community member Debbie Liu said.
Liu, who works with the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, attended Healy Elementary on the South Side for her first few years of school, until her parents moved her to a private school that offered better language instruction.
“A lot of new immigrants are finding comfort in going to a school where they know there is bilingual staff and teachers,” Liu said, which many schools in the area don’t offer for Cantonese or Mandarin speakers. “I think CPS is moving in the right direction to solve this disparity issue, but there is still a lot of work to do.”
The region’s struggle with gun violence also means that academic issues sometimes come secondary to dealing with trauma, said Cheryl Flores, director of community schools for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.
“In our community students are suffering from trauma so we can’t begin to think about addressing academic issues until we can figure out how to best support them,” she said.
According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had fewer guidance counselors per student than many other big cities — 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students.
Flores and other attendees Monday asked the school district to hire counselors who can deal with violence-related trauma, teachers who speak Chinese, and buildings that offer the latest in technology and facilities.
“If we were to invest in our schools and the facilities, I think CPS knows what works. We need supports for our diverse learners, high quality teachers for [English learners] and diverse learners, and we haven’t been doing that,” Flores said.