Area public high schools face cycle of declining enrollment and funding
February 2, 2018

Benito Juarez Community Academy High School will lose more discretionary funds than any other school in the area.

By Igor Studenkov.

Byron Sigcho, director of the Pil-sen Alliance, told Gazette Chicago that public high schools in his community and other local neighborhoods are stuck in a cycle of declining enrollment.

The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) allocate funding based on how many students attend each school. Many State and Federal grants work the same way. As enrollment declines, schools lose funding, which makes them less attractive to potential students, Sigcho explained. That, in turn, leads to more enrollment declines and more cuts.

A look at discretionary funds—the funding schools use to pay for supplies, field trips, and some educational programming—illustrates the problem. In January 2017, CPS froze discretionary funds as it tried to cope with a budget shortfall. It subsequently unfroze some of that money in schools serving low income neighborhoods. Since then, the Illinois General Assembly has approved a new school funding formula that brought more funding to CPS, however, most of the high schools that serve local low income areas actually will receive less discretionary funding this year.

The CPS fiscal year 2018 budget’s Appendix B shows discretionary funds come from two sources: State of Illinois Supplemental General State Aid and Federal No Child Left Behind tier one funds. With SGSA, the State of Illinois sets the overall amount of money, which the program splits among schools based on how many students qualify for free or reduced price lunches under Federal guidelines. As for NCLB, officials allocate tier one funds based on eligibility for free or reduced price lunches as well as how many families qualify for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The amount allocated per student increases based on the school’s overall poverty rate, so the more poor students the school has, the more tier one funds it receives per student.

In both cases, the budget estimates how many qualifying students each school would have; administrators adjust the number according to how many students stay in school during the first weeks of September.

When CPS created a budget for the 2016-2017 school year, it operated under the assumption that the State would provide $125 million to help cover its pension obligations. After Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill that would have done that, however, CPS had to figure out how to fill the resulting budget hole. It took many steps, including freezing all discretionary funding effective in January 2017.

Photo courtesy Schott Foundation
A hunger strike brought national attention to Dyett High School, the only local school that will gain discretionary funds as compared to the previous year.

Greater impact on minorities

The freeze had a greater impact on schools in majority black and Hispanic neighborhoods, including Bronzeville, Pilsen, and Back of the Yards. In response to the ensuing backlash, the CPS unfroze $15 million, returning some of the funds to schools serving low income communities.

At the time, then-CPS CEO Forrest Claypool stated CPS could not return all the money originally allotted to those schools.

“After the freeze was announced, we heard strong concerns from members of both the African American and Hispanic communities,” he said. “While we cannot make this freeze equal in all schools, we want to be responsive to those concerns and mitigate the most disproportionate impacts.”

Benito Juarez Community Academy High School, the neighborhood high school for Pilsen and part of Little Village, has a student body that is 94.5% Hispanic and 95.8% low income, according to CPS data. The freeze originally cost the school $612,614, but CPS unfroze a total of $130,541, leaving it with a shortfall of $482,100.

Back of the Yards High School, currently open to all high school students in the city, posts enrollment figures of 89.9% Hispanic and 95.6% low income. The freeze cost it $214,728 in discretionary funds; officials unfroze $60,254, leaving $154,474 inaccessible.

Ellen H. Richards Career Academy High School, which serves most of the Back of the Yards area, has 59.8% Hispanic, 38.8% black, and 98.1% low income enrollment. The freeze cost it $14,670, but it later received $14,544, leaving only $126 frozen.

Edward Tilden Career Community High School, which serves Bridgeport, Canaryville, and parts of Back of the Yards, has 64% black, 34% Hispanic, and 93.4% low income enrollment. The freeze cost it $17,474, and it received $16,160, leaving $1,314 frozen.

Bronzeville High School, like Back of the Yards High School, currently is open enrollment; the student body currently is 96.7% black and 95.4% low income. While the freeze cost it $18,880, officials eventually unfroze all its funds.

Walter Henry Dyett High School for the Arts presents an unusual case. Until 2015, it served as an ordinary neighborhood high school for portions of Bronzeville, Oakland, Washington Park, and Kenwood. CPS closed it in 2015, leading to protests that included sit-ins and a 34-day hunger strike. In response, CPS had to reopen it in September 2016 as an arts focused school that serves as a neighborhood school for its old service area while accepting students from elsewhere in the city so long as they meet certain grade point average and attendance requirements. Dyett’s enrollment is 97.7% black and 88.3% low income. The freeze tied up $100,474 in funds, but the school later received a total of $55,774 back.

Wells Community Academy High School serves the West Loop, Greektown, the Taylor Street-Little Italy area, and the Loop. Its enrollment is 51.7% Hispanic, 43.8% black, and 90.2% low income. The freeze cost it $20,414; as at Bronzeville High School, officials unfroze all its funds.

Gazette Chicago contacted both CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) for comment, but neither responded to repeated calls and e-mails.

Not enough

In August 2017, Rauner signed a compromise measure that changed how the State distributes education funding, with the goal of sending more money to lower income school districts in Chicago and elsewhere. In a statement issued Sept. 28, 2017, CTU argued that it still was not enough.

“The ‘evidence-based funding’ model embedded in the new school funding bill fails to address the chronic budget challenges that CPS confronts, leaving the district in need of upwards of $500 million in revenue from the City for the [2017-2018] school year alone,” CTU stated.

According to CPS’s fiscal year 2018 budget, the district actually spent varying amounts of discretionary funds, sometimes providing less than the adjusted budget figures and other times giving more.

Looking ahead to the next school year, Gazette Chicago compared how much discretionary funding the district is expecting to spend throughout the 2017-2018 school year with how much it currently budgets to spend next school year. The data reveals that, aside from Dyett, the high schools will lose funds.

Juarez High School would lose $982,109, more than any other school in Gazette Chicago’s coverage area. Back of the Yards High School would lose $124,500, Bronzeville High School would lose $157,655, Richards High School would lose $34,338, and Tilden and Wells High Schools would lose funds as well.

Meanwhile, Dyett will receive $110,455 more than last year.

The 2018 budget projects that, in the 2018-2019 school year, the district will lose 7,786 students. While core funding will increase by $16 million, the budget notes that extra money is due solely to rising teacher salaries and other teacher related expenses.

Gazette Chicago attempted to contact all principals of the affected schools. Dyett principal Beulah McLoyd was the only one who responded, referring this newspaper to the CPS communications office—which did not respond to inquiries either.

Sigcho said that, while CPS launched several initiatives to improve schools, he felt it was missing the root cause of declining enrollment.

“If the city keeps losing population, the schools will keep losing funding,” he said. “When families leave, it affects the enrollment.”

Sigcho said the issue has grown particularly acute in Pilsen. Redevelopment and gentrification are driving up property values, causing existing families to leave because they cannot afford to stay. Newer residents may not have children or not send them to neighborhood schools such as Juarez.

“We have 2,000 children that left Pilsen schools, and we have massive effect in terms of funding, Sigcho said.

He noted some parents try to enroll their children in magnet and charter schools, which peels away at attendance, too.

The CTU made a similar case in a Jan. 8 statement, arguing that CPS and Mayor Rahm Emanuel should “end CPS’s flawed ‘choice model,’ which sets up a limited number of well resourced magnet schools and a large number of charter schools—an approach that has, in combination with student-based budgeting, contributed to the destabilization of Chicago’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods, driven families from Chicago, and left many neighborhood schools starved of resources and struggling to offer students a quality curriculum.”

Sigcho added that bad decisions on the City and State levels have left CPS with debt it cannot easily pay. An elected school board that could appoint the CEO would go a long way toward addressing that, Sigcho argued, saying the mayor-appointed school board “mismanaged public schools for way too long. We had banks that made toxic deals. Everything is coming back. And this, we have to remember, is because of the lack of transparency.”

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