UPTOWN — Renovating Uptown's four underutilized schools could come with a $33.7 million price tag, according to school district statistics.
Chicago Public Schools will announce closings and other school actions for the following school year at the end of March. The last round of Chicago Public School closings were based on performance. The next round is all about saving space and money, said CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler.
"We simply have too many buildings and are spreading our resources too thin," she said.
Updated enrollment and space use data for the 2012-2013 school year show that of the 40 schools in the Ravenswood-Ridge network, 25 are making efficient use of space, three are overcrowded and 12 are underutilized — including four in Uptown.
Enrollment below 80 percent of "ideal enrollment," as defined by CPS, is considered underutilized, while schools with enrollment of more than 120 percent of the ideal number are deemed overcrowded.
All four underutilized schools, and in fact, most Uptown schools, serve a predominately black and Hispanic, mostly low-income student population — despite the abundance of economic and racial diversity in the area.
Building improvements in those underutilized schools would cost $33.7 million. They include renovating and maintaining building exteriors and interiors, as well as updating electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems.
Graeme Stewart Elementary School alone accounts for about half of the bill. The 256 students enrolled at the start of the school year marked a 30 percent decrease compared to the 2009-2012 year and fell 59 percent short of CPS's "ideal capacity."
Both Uplift Community High School, where enrollment has declined 25 percent since the 2009-2010 year, and Joseph Brennemann Elementary School, have about $8 million in needed improvements and would need to nearly double enrollment to meet ideal building capacity.
Joseph Stockton Elementary School, however, would only cost $400,000 because of the more than $10 million in improvements made to the school in the past two years, Ravenswood-Ridge area chief Craig Benes said. CPS standards indicate the building should serve 1020 students, more than double the 475 counted this year.
According to Ziegler, the district has "extreme financial difficulties," and enough unused space for at least 118,000 more students in light of a decline in Chicago's school-age population.
Ald. James Cappleman (46th) told DNAinfo.com Chicago in November that he expected "some tough decisions," to address the high vacancy rate in schools and "wouldn't be surprised," if that includes school closings in Uptown. The proportion of children in the 46th Ward who are under age 18 is 12.25 percent, more than 10 percentage points lower than the city average, according to Cappleman's office.
"There's just not as many families with children at this point in time in that neighborhood as there were in the past," Benes said about Uptown.
The true story of how children became so scarce — some people in the neighborhood say — is a gentrification tale full of rising home prices and poor minority families who couldn't afford to stay.
Chicago Real Estate Daily reported that home prices in the 60640 zip code, which includes Uptown and Andersonville, rose about 40 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Meanwhile, the 46th Ward's black population decreased by at least 16.4 percent, the Hispanic population shrunk by about 35 percent and the white population grew 5.3 percent, according to Cappleman's office.
Cappleman's 2011 Ward Master Plan also said that likely contributing factors to the low population of children in the area include "a poor perception of the local public schools," and "unfavorable perceptions of crime and quality of life in the neighborhood."
Uptown resident Tarsha Mack, 38, is the mother of five children aged 3 to 23 who have all gone to Uptown schools at some point, including Stockton, Stewart and the former Arai Middle School.
She recently transferred her 9-year-old daughter from Stewart to Ravenswood School, just west of Uptown, "because the environment was just not good for her," at the school and "she was picking up bad habits."
There was too much profanity and fighting, said Mack, who added proudly that her daughter has flourished at Ravenswood and is "totally different now."
Mack said that judging from her experiences, Uptown's schools "need a lot of assistance."
Or maybe something else.
"A lot of the children over here depend on the schools. And I think that rather than closing them that they need to work on making them better," she said. "Either they need to modify them and make it a better environment for the kids, or it would probably be better to close them and send the students to a school that's better."