In the last half of the 1990s, young professionals streamed into the city, snapping up high-priced condominiums and urban townhomes. In the hottest areas, mainly on the North Side and in and around the Loop, property values have soared, bringing rents and property taxes along with them.
Arguably, if such gentrification has given the city a facelift, it has only added wrinkles to the public school system, a Catalyst analysis of school attendance patterns shows.
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has made it clear that he sees public schools as pivotal to keeping these and other middle-class residents from fleeing the city for the suburbs. So far, though, neighborhood schools in the most rapidly gentrifying areas have failed to attract their new neighbors.
A Catalyst analysis of the most rapidly-developing census tracts—covering more than 60 percent of West Town, Lake View, Lincoln Park, the Near South Side and several other communities—found that the number of children there who attend public elementary schools dropped 18 percent between 1995 and 2000. In contrast, in the rest of the city, the number of public elementary school students grew 13 percent.
The decline in public school attendance in these census tracts is due in part to a decline in the number of residents under 14 years old. During the 1990s, that number dropped 16 percent. The rest of the city, however, posted an 8-percent increase in that age group.
“Young professionals don’t have children—they have dogs,” quips Robert Alexander, principal of Pulaski Elementary in Logan Square.
The Catalyst analysis indicates that many of the young professionals who did have children left the city when their kids became old enough for kindergarten. That can be seen in the differential rates of decline between children ages 5 to 13 and children younger than 5. For the former, school-age group, the decline was 19 percent; for the latter preschool group, it was 12 percent.
Real estate brokers see the people behind these numbers all the time. “I was out with clients today, and [they] asked if schools’ reputations affected the value of homes,” relates Ronald Hollaender, a realtor in Lake View. “And I said no. Because often, the people take off. And it’s a shame, because it doesn’t give the schools a chance to do well.”
Neighborhood public schools had particular trouble attracting whites, who made up the largest share of the new residents in the fastest-gentrifying areas. Census figures show that the white population in those areas grew by 14 percent, while school data shows that white public-school enrollment in those areas dropped 24 percent.
Two other recent studies conclude that whites are less likely than other groups to put their children in the city’s public schools. One study found that the number of white children enrolled in first grade in 1999 was only about one-third the number that state records showed had been born in Chicago six years earlier. A Loyola University researcher found only 53 percent of white families who had children in the early 1990s were still living in the city in 2000.
Arne Duncan, chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, is undaunted by the numbers and says he believes gentrifiers will come around and use public schools.
“My assumption is that they don’t have school age children yet,” he says “but someday they will. And the question is, as single yuppies get married and have children: How do we make sure that these neighborhood schools are schools of choice for them?”
He’s pinning high hopes on “magnet cluster” programs in neighborhood schools and says he’s paying particular attention to the preschool programs installed last year in some schools that were losing enrollment to gentrification. Offered for a fee, the classes are aimed at middle-class families.
Duncan says he’s encouraged by enrollment so far but acknowledges that the program’s test is yet to come. “The challenge and the opportunity for us is, once [parents] are done with that program, will they stay at the school for kindergarten?”
One researcher thinks it’s a hopeless cause
The people who are moving into gentrifying neighborhoods have “no intention of sending their kids to the public schools,” says Tracy Cross, president of a real-estate consulting firm that has studied the reasons upper-income residents leave the city.
Most of them leave because they can get bigger homes for their money in the suburbs, he says. Schools aren’t even their first consideration, he adds.
“The city has done well in attracting people in the [early] stages of family formation,” Cross says. However, as their children reach school age, they move out of the city to the suburbs. “That’s just fact,” he adds.
However, some gentrifiers who have expressed interest in using public schools have raised the suspicions of principals. For instance, a community group in the rapidly gentrifying Ravenswood area has approached Waters Elementary, whose student body is primarily Latino, about forming a partnership.
“We keep asking them, ‘What is your agenda?'” says Principal Thomas Revollo. “They keep saying ‘It’s time for our children to come to this school.’ What I say to them is, ‘You mean it’s time for white children to come to this school.'”
“We’re working on that one,” says Duncan. “We’re trying to smooth things over.”
By definition, a gentrifying neighborhood is one where working-class and low-income people are forced out. That part of the equation is causing little but trouble for the public schools.
As the school enrollment in gentrifying areas declines, the schools there lose funding for programs.
Pulaski Elementary, for example, has seen its supplemental dollars drop by $175,000 since 1998. As a result, it has had to cut five positions, including the school’s reading and math coordinators.
Gentrifying area schools are also losing parents who have invested time tutoring students and helping to improve their schools. “[When] we lose these leaders, you lose the fizz. You have to get it all going again,” says Idida Perez, a parent organizer at West Town Leadership United on the Near-Northwest Side.
Meanwhile, families pushed out of gentrifying areas often wind up in neighborhoods with overcrowded schools. Typically, what that means for their children is overcrowded classes or a daily bus ride to another, less crowded school and the forfeit of after-school activities.
Transferring schools, in and of itself, can be a hardship. Students tend to lose momentum when they move, and they are likely to fall behind academically, says David Kerbow, a University of Chicago researcher who studies student mobility.
When parents are forced to move because of rising housing costs, he says, the effect is likely worse. An involuntary move “is likely going to dislodge families from the local networks they have,” he says, which diminishes a family’s “resources for making a smooth transition.”
At a time when school leaders are looking to curtail busing to save money, gentrification’s ripple effect all but assures that busing will remain a necessity. In the last six years, the Board of Education has spent more than $700 million to build classrooms for an extra 40,000 students. Yet 51 schools remained severely overcrowded in the fall of 2000, enrolling almost 7,500 more kids than their capacities. And the system has run out of money to build more classrooms.
“This problem is never going to go away,” says Giacomo Mancuso, the board’s director of capital planning. “This is a continuous phenomenon in a dynamic, vital city.”
Indeed, since the spring of 2000, the number of students being bused away from overcrowded schools is up 10 percent, rising to 5,774 from 5,249, according to CPS Transportation Director Woody Fitzmaurice.
With no new construction funding on the horizon, Mancuso sees even more busing in years to come. “We have, at best, been treading water,” he says.
Much of the displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods—and the growth in other areas of the city—has affected Latino residents. “The Latino community is growing faster than any other group in the schools,” says Virginia Valdez, director of the Chicagoland Latino Educational Research Institute. “As a result of gentrification, they’re being moved out” to neighborhoods on the far Northwest and Southwest Sides, where the schools are now bursting at the seams.
In the rapidly gentrifying areas analyzed by Catalyst , the number of Latino students in public elementary schools dropped 20 percent between 1995 and 2000. By comparison, the number of Latino elementary students in the rest of the city grew by 28 percent.
Ironically, some children pushed out to the Northwest Side find themselves bused back to their old schools, where they’re welcomed with open arms.
In the case of Otis Elementary in West Town, a displaced parent got the ball rolling. With no room for her children at Nixon Elementary, their new school in Hermosa, she called Otis Principal James Cosme to see if her kids could be bused back to Otis. Cosme and Nixon principal Herman Escobar made a deal—Otis would take as many students from the Nixon area as it could accommodate. Otis now buses in about 160 students from Nixon’s attendance area, Cosme estimates.
Some of the schools that now bring students in from outside their attendance areas once were overcrowded themselves. Ten years ago, enrollment at Lozano Elementary in West Town topped 1,000 students, and parents lobbied successfully to build an addition to the school. It opened in 1993. By 2000, enrollment had fallen below 650, and more than 100 of them lived outside the schools’ attendance boundaries.
Between 1995 and 2000, the neighborhood schools in the fastest-developing census tracts increased the number of non-neighborhood students they served by 1,891. In 2000, more than 60 percent of Pulaski’s 1,123 students lived outside the school’s attendance boundaries. Principal Alexander estimates that more than 400 students arrive by bus each day.
Gentrification’s impact on schools and children has become a rallying cry for advocates of affordable housing and for neighborhood organizations in gentrifying areas.
“What you’re seeing is the cost to the school system of [the city’s failure] to create a stable housing policy,” says Rachel Johnston, director of operations for the Chicago Rehab Network, a coalition of neighborhood-based organizations that works to create and preserve affordable housing.
The Rehab Network proposes that the city and county take two major steps. One is to reform the property tax code, giving breaks to affordable-housing developers and long-time property owners and landlords. Last year, the Cook County Board took steps toward these reforms, passing a tax break for longtime homeowners, for instance, and the Rehab Network hopes more will follow.
The second is to require developers to set aside some portion of new housing for sale or rental at affordable rates. Chicago hasn’t taken any steps in this direction yet, but Boston and some Washington, DC suburbs in Maryland have such programs in place. A neighborhood group in Uptown, Organization of the Northeast, has made some successful deals with individual developers along these lines.
Stemming the displacement of working class and low-income families will help strengthen local schools, the advocates argue, by cutting student mobility, reducing the time students spend on buses and keeping parent leaders in the schools.
“Housing is foundational,” says Johnston. “When people have affordable housing they can succeed in other areas of their lives.”
Duncan doesn’t see the issue as one that the school system can address. “I don’t know what the school system can do about neighborhoods getting more expensive,” he says.
Asked if the school system might find itself talking to the city’s planning or housing departments about creating affordable housing, he shrugs. “Who knows? It’s something we’d be happy to look at and try to understand,” he says.
Intern Catrin Einhorn, writer Brett Schaeffer contributed to this report.