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On a blazingly summer day, Suzanne Mazenis-Luzzi stood behind a table at Fiesta del Sol talking to passersby about the benefits of enrolling their children at Jungman Elementary.
The principal of the east Pilsen mainstay, Mazenis-Luzzi joked with students between bouts of detailing the school’s commitment to technology and individualized academic support systems.
“Our focus is really on (student) differentiation,” she said. “We’re going to make sure every single student matters and give them what they need.”
But despite her sunny demeanor, tough times are undoubtedly ahead for Mazenis-Luzzi and other school administrators in Pilsen.
While she’s optimistic about her staff’s ability to weather the coming storm — one brought on by budget cuts, changes in neighborhood demographics and administrative-level policy decisions — educators and parents across the neighborhood are concerned about the long-term viability of the neighborhood elementary schools that anchor their community.
When the cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools system released its school-by-school budget for the coming academic year, for example, principals across the city found themselves grappling with the question of how to do more with less.
In Pilsen, a total of 10 traditional neighborhood elementary schools are set to see a drop of nearly $3 million. They include: Ruiz Elementary, Cooper Academy, Finkl Elementary, Whittier Elementary, Pilsen Academy, Pickard Elementary, Perez Jr. Elementary, Walsh Elementary, Jungman Elementary and Juarez Academy.
While the specific amounts of these cuts vary from school to school, they range from sums equal to 1.5 percent of the school’s budget, as in the case of Jungman, to 15 percent in the case of Cooper.
Like many communities throughout Chicago, Pilsen neighborhood schools are struggling.
Righting this ship locally will require a deeper understanding of the trends driving recent shifts in school enrollment in order to then stabilize them.
At the elementary school level, Pilsen schools in recent years have registered a steady fall in enrollment.
Since 2008, the neighborhood’s 10 primary schools have collectively lost 1,026 students — more than 17 percent of their total student body —according to CPS data. Several schools like Perez and Finkl have been hit particularly hard. Their enrollment has declined by an alarming 32.7 percent and 30.9 percent, respectively.
Altogether, the Pilsen schools in line for budget cuts are projected to have lost 296 students since last year, according to CPS estimates.
Similar trends are playing out citywide with CPS projecting a net loss of students enrolled in the system. Fewer kids are attending any kind of school, period. The drain comes despite an administrative push for privately run charter schools and an emphasis on selective enrollment institutions at the high school level.
The real-world consequences of these drops are felt primarily in dollars. CPS employs a formula to distribute funding based on student numbers. Therefore, a shrinking student body means fewer funds for classroom instruction, extracurricular activities and student support services.
Facing a highly publicized $1 billion deficit and with dysfunction in Springfield posing a similar threat to future education funding, the fiscal situation at CPS has resulted in similar cuts across the city. In total, neighborhood schools are set to deal with almost $60 million in total cuts this academic year.
So while Pilsen certainly isn’t alone in its struggles, the rapid drop of students in neighborhood schools is troubling and raises questions about exactly what factors created the conditions for such an exodus.
A school-by-school analysis of enrollment numbers reveals a slate of interesting trends. In an effort to shine light on some of the forces reshaping Pilsen’s public schools, Chicago Voz examined recent trends at all schools within the neighborhood’s commonly accepted boundaries.
Ultimately, Finkle, Whittier and Jungman were chosen for examination in this article because their specific enrollment patterns shine light on some of the forces affecting the long-term viability of Pilsen’s public schools.
William F. Finkl Academy, 2332 S. Western Ave., lost more than 30 percent of its student body between 2008 and 2014. In real numbers, that figure amounts to 210 students.
Located on the border between Pilsen and Little Village, Frinkl accepts students from both communities and surrounding areas.
The school saw losses in the number of students residing within the attendance boundaries and whose parents chose to send them to Finkl — 399 to 320 students.
The total number of children living within the school boundaries who are eligible to attend Finkl, however, decreased by only 9 individual students during that same period.
Finkl’s student loss was driven largely by a decrease in the number of students who live outside the school’s attendance boundaries. Between 2008 and 2014, that number dropped from 281 total students to 150.
Finkl attendance boundaries
More so than most schools in Pilsen, Finkl over the past several years has experienced a sort of perfect storm with regards to depopulation. Large decreases in students from both inside and outside the attendance boundary have led to a large-scale dropoff in the total student body.
School administrators are also working to remove the school from provisional support status — something like probation — as determined by the CPS ranking system.
Funding aside, this decline in population provides reason to believe that the school’s reputation and subsequent ability to attract future students may also be in jeopardy.
Calls to Finkl administrators for comment were not returned in time for publication.
At Joseph Jungman Elementary School, 1746 S. Miller St., the loss of students appears to be due to a sharp decrease in the number of children residing within the school boundaries. From 2008 to 2014, that number dropped by 25 percent.
Located near the intersection of 18th and Halsted Streets, the school sits in the heart of the most rapidly gentrifying area of the neighborhood. Between 2008 and 2014, the school lost a total of 42 students, or 12.8 percent of its total population.
Per the CPS ranking system, Jungman rates somewhere in the middle.
Jungman attendance boundaries
During the same period, eligible students living within the attendance boundary — bounded roughly by 16th Street on the north, Cermak Road on the south, Racine Avenue on the west and a zig-zag pattern between Carpenter Street and Halsted Street on the west — dropped from 502 to 378 individuals. This steady flow of students moving outside of the school boundaries presents a worrying trend.
While there was an increase in students from outside the attendance boundaries (50 to 91 children), the depletion of the local student population was large enough to account for a significant drop in total attendance.
While it’s difficult to say with certainty what caused this decrease, rising rents and changing demographics have likely played a major role in shrinking the pool of students from which Jungman can recruit. Between 2009 and 2013, the median household income in the Census tract surrounding Jungman increased from $28,232 to $42,989.
While the number of elementary-aged students in the area has remained fairly steady, higher-earning families typically have the means to send their children to private schools. Compared to working class parents who have limited time and understanding of the convoluted CPS enrollment system, they also tend to be more active in their children’s education and more readily able to navigate the charter/private school administration.
In the case of Jungman, a combination of these forces seems to have taken its toll on the student body.
At John Greenleaf Whittier Elementary School, 1900 W. 23rd St., a 16 percent drop in enrollment since 2008 has occurred despite an increase in students residing inside the school’s attendance boundaries.
That figure of eligible students — 462 students to 517 — was nullified by an increase in students whose parents simply chose to send them elsewhere. Specifically, the number of eligible students residing within the attendance boundaries but not attending Whittier went from 170 in 2008 to 286 in 2014.
Whittier attendance boundaries
The school currently receives a low rating from the CPS ranking system, a possible influencer in local parents’ choice of schooling.
Students attending from outside the attendance boundaries remained mostly steady during the same period.
Whittier made news in 2010 when residents staged a lengthy sit-in to protest the city’s decision to demolish the school’s field house. Following considerable backlash, city officials stepped in to construct a new recreational facility that opened in 2014.
While many residents praised the new asset, others told media outlets they worried the school was under resourced and that its reputation had been damaged by the city’s secretive process.
For his part, third-year principal Antonio Acevedo will rely on Whittier’s dual language program and other offers to shore up attendance and restore the neighborhood’s confidence. But whether the program will prove strong enough to keep Whittier viable over the long term remains to be seen.
Finkl, Jungman and Whittier each embody the results of different forces that are changing the makeup and long-term viability of Pilsen’s schools. While various factors have contributed to the changes at all three institutions, the specifics of their declines beg questions about the broader changes currently reshaping the neighborhood.
Given the steady depopulation of the neighborhood’s schools, it’s feasible that principals such as Mazenis-Luzzi will one day be tasked with spending even more time marketing at the expense of tending to their teachers and students. A consideration of these trends, therefore, is of paramount importance to Pilsen residents and stakeholders.
Because schools’ attendance boundaries do not line up evenly with U.S. Census tracts, it’s difficult to say with total certainty whether economic and development trends at the block level are accurately reflected in school enrollment figures. But a consideration of larger, neighborhood-level changes can be useful in contextualizing the state of Pilsen’s school system.
The second part of this story will shed light on some of those factors determining the state of Pilsen’s public education.
Article by Paolo Cisneros, Contributor
Photos by Jackie Serrato, Editor