On a recent March evening, in the middle of a dimly lit library, DeVonte Arnold is just one of five people attending the local school council meeting at Hirsch High School in Grand Crossing, and the only student. He is paying close attention as a report from his principal delivers some bad news.
Ten years ago, the school had nearly 400 students. This year, according to the principal’s report, 112 students are enrolled at Hirsch.
Arnold, a 17-year-old sophomore and class president, knows the dwindling enrollment at Hirsch traditionally has meant less money and resources for him and his fellow students. Arnold, ever the optimist, loves his school and wants to do whatever he can to get those numbers up.
“A goal of mine is to at least get 500 more students,” Arnold said in a later interview.
As Chicago marks the 10 year anniversary of the 49 school closures in 2013, Arnold faces steep odds to reach this goal. Enrollment trends are heading in the opposite direction for many neighborhood schools like Hirsch in part because of decisions by Chicago Public School District leaders, some of them made before Arnold was even born.
In the decade since the closures, which left dozens of empty schools throughout the city, CPS has about 81,000 fewer students and has dropped from the third largest district in the nation to the fourth, as the city continues to lose Black residents.
CPS data from the 2022-2023 school year shows 61 school buildings have an occupancy rate of 30% or less, compared to the 17 buildings that fell into the same category when Mayor Rahm Emanuel approved the largest mass school closure in modern American history.
Those stark figures make parents worry about the future of their childrens’ schools and what kind of education they are going to get.
“I feel like the city kids get it the worst,” said Shawanna Turner, whose son attends Crane Medical Prep High School, a school with a dwindling enrollment. “I feel like they’re not taught as much, the schools aren’t as up to par as other schools that are more suburban. I do feel such disappointment that because they’re in the city and in lower income areas, they don’t get the same learning experience.”
Those are the challenges confronting the city’s new mayor, Brandon Johnson, and the Chicago Public School board, about half of whose members will be chosen by voters starting in 2024 as a fully elected 21-member board is phased in. The school system is in similar financial shape as it was a decade ago, with a $628 million deficit projected for the 2025-2026 school year, and a $13 billion deficit in the teacher’s pension system that is less than half funded.
In January 2025, a moratorium on closing Chicago public schools, passed by state lawmakers, will expire, but Johnson showed no appetite for closing more schools in a recent interview with the Illinois Answers Project.
“School closings lead to more school closings,” Johnson said in an interview. “It doesn’t solve whatever its intentions are. If the intentions are to create a better and a stronger education system, then clearly that further substantiates that school closures have been a failure in the city of Chicago.”
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said this is the first time that he has been part of a district that has closed schools instead of designing solutions to avoid such closures. The 2013 decision created mistrust between parents and the district, he said in an interview with Illinois Answers.
“’I always have found that the costs of closing a school in terms of trust, the challenges … the disruption we cause with families, those costs, outweigh the benefits that I’ve ever seen from closing the school,” Martinez said.
Public schools closed, charters opened
CPS’ excess of empty schools dates back to decisions made in the mid-1990s, an era that saw a boom in school-age children and a flurry of newly built schools, followed by a sharp decline in the city’s Black population.
From 1995 to 2015, CPS built 230 new schools to accommodate the swell of 28,000 new students that joined the attendance rolls in the first decade of that era, according to University of Illinois-Chicago Professor Rachel Weber, who studied the school closures.
However, Black residents, who resided in the hyper-segregated and low-income neighborhoods of the West and South sides, began to leave the city.
Beginning in the early 2000s through 2015, more than 180,000 Black residents left Chicago, and CPS lost 64,000 students — 15% of its student body.
“They built a lot of new schools that weren’t necessarily needed so of course they are going to be underutilized,” Weber said. “CPS will always point to these secular trends of declining population, particularly in low-income African American neighborhoods but you create underutilization by creating more schools than you need.”
As the Black population decreased, the city’s Mexican population surged before leveling off — filling in some but not all of the enrollment losses in the district. Enrollment losses are compounded by declining birth rates.
These population trends have left some neighborhoods with schools that have been neglected by the district, despite the increase of charter, magnet and specialized schools.
Months after closing 49 schools, 11 CPS-operated charter schools opened on the South, West and Northwest sides of the city in 2013, according to district data.
“I think a lot of the low enrollment has to do with the fact that they have these charter schools now,” said Ida Hudson, the chairperson of the local school council at Marshall High School on the city’s West Side. Her son, Darren, is graduating from Marshall as valedictorian.
Hudson said her mother and sisters attended Marshall and recalled many programs that Marshall used to have but were eliminated due to budget cuts such as nursing, horticulture, ROTC and band.
Marshall’s enrollment has fallen from 677 students a decade ago to 186 this school year — a 73% decline. Likewise, the school’s budget has shrunk from $11.4 million in 2012 to $4.8 million last year.
“Any time you take away an educational foundation in a neighborhood, that’s really hurtful to a lot of people who have gone through, and that’s their alma mater,” said Pastor Corey Brooks, CEO of Project HOOD – a well-known nonprofit community development organization in Woodlawn. Project HOOD provides youth programming to an alternative school in Chicago.
Brooks said schools with low enrollment and dwindling offerings for students should be placed on so-called “turnaround plans” to receive extra support from the district.
But if the school does not make progress after a while, “you can’t just keep putting money into something that’s not working,” Brooks said. “Sometimes I think, in our community, we fail to make the tough decisions until things just die.”
Martinez said he recognizes the inequalities between neighborhood and other schools and that his first step in addressing this is adding basic student services — such as ensuring that every school has an arts program.
“You can’t really even start imagining new models, strong supportive systems, if the resources are not first laid out,” Martinez said.
Inequalities also exist because of the existing physical conditions of school facilities which impact what the schools can offer, Martinez said.
“At the end of the calendar year, I want to show a comprehensive analysis of all of our buildings and all the needs to really modernize our buildings,” he said. “It’s going to be a big dollar figure, but I think it’s an important conversation for us to have with the community.”
Given the need, he predicts that a 10 year plan will be required.
“What I want to change is having better, high-quality choices for our children, so that they don’t have to leave their neighborhood. They (should) have the ability to attend strong programming and that the support is there,” he said.
The master facility plan cannot be completed without the input of local communities, Martinez said. He stated that the district’s equity office has been working on how to better engage the community. Over the next six months, CPS will put that plan into practice, he said.
“It forces my team to be much more thoughtful about how we implement changes, how we communicate them and how we engage our stakeholders. I think it’ll make us better over time, but we have to acknowledge the mistrust that got created,” Martinez said.
New mayor, same problems
Decades in the making, CPS’ financial problems have gone from a campaign talking point during the mayor’s race for Johnson to a reality he and his education team have to grapple with as Johnson has promised a first-class education for all Chicago students.
Johnson said Martinez knows that “my expectation is for us to move away from the school-based budgeting model and to implement and actively engage in an evidence-based model so that we can receive the additional dollars for resources that come with our embracing of that model.”
Signed into state law in 2017, the formula creates a funding target based on 34 characteristics of a district including factors such as class sizes and the number of special education students a district serves. Once a funding target is established, the state can then determine what local and state funds need to be awarded.
CPS has already begun to reduce their reliance on student-based budgeting, Martinez said.
“Less than half of the resources are being driven by student-based budgeting,” Martinez said about the current school year’s budget. “Next year we’re seeing even a further reduction closer to 40%.”
The district is expected to increase their reliance towards the needs-based model, 3 percentage points, or from 54% to 57%, according to district documents.
“I feel we’re about a year away from really being able to really fully design and codify what I would call a needs-based model, which is really what the evidence-based formula strategy was,” Martinez said.
To champion such changes, Johnson said he will need to persuade elected officials in Springfield “to come up with progressive revenue ideas that will permit us with the ability to invest in the lives of this generation.”
Johnson said those conversations with lawmakers will be about the importance of having “economically secure” children.
“Education is a conduit to creating real economic opportunities for our students,” he said.
During his campaign run, Johnson’s team said student-based budgeting, “contributed to principals whose budgets are strapped to choose between keeping a veteran teacher or having a librarian and a functioning library.”
To ensure equity, Johnson said he has been working with education leaders to create a distribution formula that includes such factors as the economic status and housing insecurity in neighborhoods.
“There will be several measurements that we will use to guide our approach to how we resource neighborhoods and so we won’t be necessarily limited to one particular aspect. They will have a variety of sections that we will review closely to make those determinations,” he said.
Starting next year, the CPS board will begin its transition from seven members appointed by the mayor to 21 members elected by the people. Ten elected members will be sworn in January 2025, but Johnson will appoint 11 board seats. By 2027, the entire board will be elected.
“If there are 21 members, how many votes will it take to approve a school closure?” said Hal Woods, who studies CPS’ declining enrollment at a nonprofit organization called Kids First Chicago. “Now it’s going to take a mayor to make a case to 21 politicians to close a school — even one school. Just think about what that might take.”
Schools on the brink
School utilization rates was one of the central metrics used by then Mayor Emanuel in deciding to close schools in 2013 along with test scores and enrollment.
Currently, over 300 schools are deemed underutilized by CPS.
At Hirsch, the 112-student count offered by Principal David Narain at a March 20th local school council meeting does not reflect the number of students who attend class regularly, Narain said.
About 20 of these students are enrolled “in name only” and may have only attended class for a day or two.
The school’s occupation rate has declined to just 9%, according to CPS’ calculations.
Tracking down these students and getting them to attend class regularly is part of what makes neighborhood schools like Hirsch indispensable to their communities, Narain said.
In one case, a student attended class for just one day back in September, and it took administrators months to reach a family member who said the girl had not been attending due to transportation issues, he recalled. In March, they finally got her enrolled at a new school closer to her home and removed from Hirsch’s attendance rolls.
This kind of individual attention can benefit kids who might get lost in the shuffle at other schools, Narain said during the local school council meeting.
He also detailed the downside of low enrollment; the school no longer has a music teacher, and Narain has been trying to hire a new gym teacher for many months now, he said.
The LSC meeting was sparsely attended, but those who attended came with a deep passion for the school, its students and the broader community.
“The issues [at Hirsch] are not school issues – they’re community issues,” said Maria Owens, a Grand Crossing resident and the vice chairperson of the local school council at Hirsch. Owens joined the council after her daughter’s fiance was murdered near the school.
Owens dreams of anchoring the high school as a hub for the community by offering informational sessions for parents on things like filing taxes and applying for social services, she said.
Blending community centers with underutilized schools is part of the sustainable community school model, an educational plan that Johnson supports.
Johnson highlighted the success of Beidler Elementary, a school that was set to close in 2011 but remained open after parent protests and eventually was transformed into a sustainable community school.
Along with 19 other schools, Beidler received $500,000 to invest in community resources.
Beidler Principal Ursula Hoskins said the money paid for an extra school counselor, tutoring for all students before and after school, expanded instruction for art such as painting and dance, and six weeks of summer programming.
“Beidler Elementary School is an example of what’s possible in the city of Chicago and that we need to invest in what’s possible in the community and school, and set an example of that,” Johnson said.
A jarring sight
On the other end of spectrum sits Genevieve Melody Elementary School in West Garfield Park, shuttered as part of the mass closures 10 years ago. It opened in 1965 with the amenities of a modern elementary school: a lunchroom, a gymnasium, a library and a state-of-the-art playground equipped with swings and climbing equipment.
The three-story building is now gutted, its windows smashed, with scavengers having ripped the piping and wiring out of the ceilings and walls.
The sight is jarring for Gail Pullen, who graduated from the school along with her son and owns a greystone home across the street.
Her mother, Leola, worked there as a teacher’s aide after their family bought their West Garfield Park home in 1962. She said they were the third Black family on the block.
The impact of the building’s closure on the community has been “unreal,” she said, adding that people use the site to buy and sell drugs.
“It’s sad that anybody should have to have that in their neighborhood,” Pullen said.
CPS sold the Melody building five years ago for $80,000 to affordable housing nonprofit Single Room Housing Assistance Corporation, which runs a 300-unit affordable housing complex in Austin.
Eric Rubenstein, the group’s executive director, said they are seeking financial assistance from the city and state to redevelop the building into a community center with 60 apartments for seniors, which could cost up to $25 million. He said he hopes the project will uplift the community.
“Sometimes, if you get one building built, then somebody spots that and says, ‘Oh, maybe I should invest in this community also,’’’ Rubenstein said. “People who live in these communities want to feel that their area is going to be restabilized and that they can feel safe and secure.”
On May 2, the project won a $150,000 grant through the Chicago Recovery Plan to help cover predevelopment costs.
Elsewhere in Chicago, the repurposing of the closed CPS buildings varies widely by neighborhood depending on the local real estate market.
Graeme Stewart Elementary School in the gentrifying Uptown neighborhood has been repurposed into luxury apartments. On the western edge of Lakeview, the old Courtenay School building, lined by mature trees and million dollar homes, has become the private German International School, which has an $18,800 annual tuition.
In Tri Taylor, CPS turned over King Elementary School to a developer, who demolished the building and constructed 30 single-family homes on the site, which sell for more than $600,000 each. In exchange, the developer agreed to pay $150,000 to Chicago Public Schools for schools in the ward after all the homes are sold.
More than two dozen school buildings, though, remain vacant or undeveloped, mostly on the South and West sides, despite CPS promises that the schools would be repurposed.
“What you are seeing is the story of Chicago,” said Weber, the UIC professor who studied the school closures. “If you are in a well-endowed property market where there’s a lot of developer interest and that tends to map onto the city’s racial geography, that vacant school is likely to have turned into something that’s no longer a vacant school.”
Looking to the future
At Hirsch, even with its small enrollment, Arnold likely won’t see his school close while he’s there. When the moratorium on closures expires in 2025, Arnold will be a senior. Still, he is passionate about helping a school that has meant so much to him.
When asked about his plans to bring new students to Hirsch, Arnold becomes animated.
“Oh, I have a lot of ideas about that,” he said, sitting up in his chair suddenly.
Arnold suggested passing out flyers with information about the school and holding community events where student ambassadors like himself could share what they love about Hirsch with prospective students.
“One of the things that I do want to do as the sophomore class president is to become more involved when it comes to making decisions, especially if it’s decisions that’s going to better the students,” Arnold said.
Passionate students like Arnold play an integral role in the grassroots coalition building needed to uplift Hirsch and the broader community, Owens said.
“When you have the youth speaking up about their needs, much like Mr. Arnold does on a regular basis, then it’s hard to ignore,” Owens said. “If people are consistently demanding things, you cannot continue to ignore them.”
He plans to attend a good college and become a lawyer, like his eighth grade math teacher, who was also an attorney and an inspiration to him during his years at Oglesby Elementary School, he said.
Arnold wants everyone to have the opportunity to build the relationships within their community that have made his high school experience so great, he said.
“When people look at these kinds of schools, they just look at it from a perspective of, ‘OK, what are we gaining from the school, what is the school doing for us?’” Arnold said. “They think about that, but they don’t think about the relationships that people build there and the overall energy that people can bring to a space.”
Reporting on equity issues by the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, president of the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.