As the first day of school approaches, Chicago Public Schools continues to grapple with large budget cuts to schools and central office, and it expects to see a drop in enrollment of around 5,000 students.
To keep families from leaving, Chicago can start by doing everything possible to make neighborhood public high schools great for all students. This would guarantee families a high quality high school education for their children without the admissions madness, anxiety and uncertainty caused by our choice system.
Choice alone doesn’t guarantee access and it doesn’t guarantee quality. According to two recent reports from the Chicago Consortium on School Research, neighborhood high schools are driving increases in graduation rates and ACT scores in CPS.
Despite this, many of these schools continue to battle negative public perception and have a hard time competing for students. Yet neighborhood high schools enroll almost half of all CPS high school students—42.5%—and serve students of all abilities and backgrounds.
It is time to put our neighborhood public high schools front and center again.
In our most impoverished and isolated communities, neighborhood high schools could be important partners in community development. These communities have seen population decline due to lack of economic opportunity and unsafe streets, resulting in a steady and sometimes dramatic drop in school enrollment. Fewer students mean fewer dollars for schools because of student-based budgeting—which may be equal, but is not fair.
Chicagoans can transform neighborhood high schools into thriving community schools sharing space with city agencies, youth programs, family services and even businesses. Community schools, working with a host of partners, can help stem the gun violence that challenges our city.
The pain caused by cuts in funding tied so tightly to enrollment is felt more deeply at neighborhood schools where they serve students with the most poverty-related challenges, and it is harder to make up funding gaps through private donations and partnerships. These schools need fair funding as well as guaranteed teacher and support positions so they can offer more than a bare bones education.
Chicago must reimagine neighborhood high schools as vital community centers. With a range of public and private partnerships, such as corporate sponsorship programs, as well as investment, schools can help make communities safer, healthier and more economically vibrant.
Using the community schools approach, for which there is plenty of evidence of success, Chicagoans can transform neighborhood high schools, and under-enrolled schools in particular, into thriving community schools sharing space with city agencies, youth programs, family services and even businesses. Community schools, open beyond regular school hours and working with a host of partners, can help stem the gun violence that challenges our city.
Our neighborhood public high schools can play a role in boosting the growth and prosperity of Chicago as a whole, keeping our communities stable and preparing our young people to be the future leaders, taxpayers and active citizens we need in our city.
It’s not a quick or easy solution, but it is possible. What will take? Long-term and fair public investment in education; more partnerships with corporate, civic and cultural institutions; evidence-based practices and policies to improve teaching and learning; meaningful community participation in planning and decision-making; and the political will to make change happen.
Adapted from an opinion piece originally appearing in Crains Chicago Business.