UPTOWN — Ald. James Cappleman (46th) said that he "wouldn't be surprised" if the Chicago Public Schools' next round of closings includes elementary schools in Uptown.
"This particular area has a high vacancy rate in area schools," he said. That's something that we have to wrestle with."
Between 80 and 120 schools across the city might be identified for closing to help cover a $1 billion deficit, according to estimates. Under-enrolled and underperforming schools are prime candidates.
"I think we're going to see that some tough decisions have to be made," Cappleman said.
Some of those decisions could include closing or consolidating one or more of the handful of neighborhood schools in Uptown, three of which are very "underutilized" by CPS standards, he said.
Joseph Stockton Elementary School has about 500 students, Graeme Stewart Elementary School has about 300 and both schools fall more than 50 percent short of ideal enrollment, according to CPS 2011-2012 space utilization reports.
Joseph Brenneman Elementary School's 370 students is 43 percent less than ideal, according to CPS, which has yet to release space utilization reports for 2012-2013.
All three schools serve a predominately black and Hispanic, mostly low-income student population.
The vacancy rate isn't just an Uptown problem. Half of the city's schools are underused, and nearly 140 are less than half full, according to CPS.
CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said in a statement that, "No decisions have been made nor are any schools under consideration at this time." She did note that space utilization is an important part of the formula CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett will use "when recommending school closures."
The deadline to announce closures, phase-outs, consolidations and other school actions is Dec.1. But Byrd-Bennet is trying to get the state legislature to extend the deadline until March so that she can "launch a rigorous and transparent engagement process with the community," Ziegler said in a statement.
The last school closed in Uptown was Joan F. Arai Middle School in 2004. It had a reputation as a dangerous, underperforming school, but it was ultimately shriveling enrollment that led to the school's closing.
Enrollment at Arai had been "declining every year pretty drastically," said David Taylor, dean of students at Uplift Community High School, which replaced Arai after teachers banded together to write a proposal for a new school.
"It was all due to the gentrification that was taking place in Uptown at that time. That's when they were converting a lot of low-income housing. People had to move. And then a few months later there would be a plush condominium," Taylor said.
There were about 900 Arai students in 1995, but by 2000 there were about only 300 students, Taylor said.
Uptown's school-aqe population has been declining since 1990, according to a report Chicago Children and Youth 1990-2010. The 46th Ward, which encompasses most of Uptown, tends to attract more single people and double-income, no-kid households. The proportion of children under age 18 in is 12.25 percent, more than 10 percent lower than the city average, according to Cappleman's office.
LaVera Lee, 64, has lived in Uptown for decades and put four kids and two grandkids through area schools, including Stockton. Lee, of the 4700 block of North Dover Street, is also a Local School Council parent representative at Stockton.
She said she can count the number of people who have children on her block on "one hand."
"We've been talking to other schools in the area about not having seventh and eighth graders, maybe sending them to Stockton. But they won't do it, because they're trying to keep their attendance up, too," she said.
She said combining two schools seems like a possible proposal from officials, although she has her concerns about that.
Lee is worried that shuffling students around could exacerbate gang tensions in the neighborhood, with the Blackstones, Vicelords and Gangster Disciples in close quarters in the community and often at odds.
She is also worried about how Stockton's recent academic probation status — combined with it's enrollment troubles — might affect its future, she said.