Busing for Controlled Enrollment

The New Conversation about Controlled Enrollment Shows How White Privilege Works in CPS

Yesterday’s WBEZ story on the possibility that Chicago Public Schools will create a new controlled enrollment policy to address overcrowding in three coveted North Side elementary schools has a back story I’m sure most of the North Side parents involved know nothing about.

But I bet there are Southwest Side families who remember it clearly.

I remember it, but from a distance. My colleagues would write about how the old controlled enrollment policy worked. Schools–mostly on the heavily overcrowded, predominantly Latino Southwest Side–were put on controlled enrollment as a last resort. First, schools had to try other strategies, including staggered schedules and alternative school year calendars, which made it possible to hold all the students. But those strategies played havoc with kids’ learning and family schedules.

When schools became so full that even these drastic, last-resort measures didn’t work, the district would bus some students out to lower-enrollment schools. Parents had no say about where their children went. The schools were usually in faraway neighborhoods. Mostly Latino kids were sent to mostly low-enrollment, predominantly Black schools. This form of forced busing received very little media attention. In the mid-2000s, CPS stopped doing it.

CPS Is Rethinking Controlled Enrollment

Fast forward to the present day, when certain well-regarded North Side elementary schools are bursting at the seams. The WBEZ story tells us that district officials are talking about creating a new controlled enrollment policy to reduce enrollment at Audubon, Burley and Lincoln elementary schools. According to current space-use data from the district, all three schools are now at 100% capacity and the number of kids in earlier grades is increasing, setting the stage for future overcrowding. Back in 2016, Lincoln received a $19 million annex that added 19 classrooms.

Though a new policy has yet to be created, parents from the schools who attended recent Local School Council meetings where district officials discussed the issue said they are talking about having parents of entering kindergartners enter a lottery where they would rank their preferred schools in the area, with no guarantees about which they would get.

Hearing all this raised my hackles and left me with questions. Why was it OK to make Southwest Side schools run split shifts and crazy calendars rather then move kids, and that’s not OK on the North Side? Why are white, affluent North Siders going to get choice if their schools are overcrowded, when Southwest Side working and middle income parents didn’t get that for 20 years?

Most importantly, why are we now going to hear little else besides white, affluent North Side parents crying about how their children won’t be able to attend the school they bought their pricey house to get a seat in?

It’s Time to Treat All Communities with Respect, Not Just the North Side

Dear North Side parents, please learn some history. If you really want your kids to stay in these particular schools, maybe you could ask some Southwest Side parents and school staff how their schools did it and ask them whether it was really worth it educationally. And if you decide that split-shift schooling or a school calendar with an October week off is too disruptive to your life, maybe you could go visit other schools in your area and see them first hand rather than make assumptions based on local gossip or who you see entering the buildings.

Whatever else you do, please check your privilege.

Dear CPS officials–it’s nice you are considering ways to improve upon the old controlled enrollment policy. It sucked. If you do it again, I’m glad you are looking at how to do it better. I’m glad you are holding meetings with schools and families before deciding on policy. And, I sure hope you do that in other parts of the city, too. Those of us here on the Southwest Side, and our friends on the South and West sides, would like to believe you would do the same for us. But we’ll believe it when we see it.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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