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Overcrowded Ogden Tells Parents: Prove You Live Within School Boundaries

 Parents outside Ogden Elementary School, 24 W. Walton St. Inset: Ogden International Principal Michael Beyer.
Parents outside Ogden Elementary School, 24 W. Walton St. Inset: Ogden International Principal Michael Beyer.
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DOWNTOWN — With no expansion on the horizon — or CPS funds to pay for it — Ogden Elementary School is pursuing a new solution to its overcrowding problem: auditing student addresses.

Ogden Principal Michael Beyer told Ogden parents Wednesday he planned to investigate student addresses this summer to ensure all those enrolled at the Downtown elementary school, 24 W. Walton St., live within its boundaries

The plan was announced shortly after a top Chicago Public Schools official told parents the local school system would be "hard-pressed" to find funding to expand Ogden Elementary, which is at 105 percent capacity. Ogden parents at Wednesday's Local School Council meeting also bristled at the notion of sending students to nearby schools with room to spare, including Wells Community Academy High School, 936 N. Ashland Ave. 

"So this is the most realistic option," Beyer said in an interview. "I live just outside the attendance boundaries and have neighbors that attend Ogden when they shouldn’t, so it’s a sticky situation for me."

Dave Matthews explains how the school will test where the kids live:

Beyer said Ogden Elementary School had an enrollment of around 850 students, and an average class size of just under 30. The neighborhood school is supposed to draw students from an area including River North, Streeterville, the Gold Coast, and the Lakeshore East community near Aqua Tower.

Yet, parents believe as many as five Ogden students per classroom are coming from outside those school boundaries. Ogden LSC Chair Tracy Shine said Wednesday that student residency shenanigans were "one of the biggest topics" brought up to her by fellow parents. 

Beyer said he did not know yet how pervasive the issue was, but hoped the audit would lead to "a slight decrease in enrollment" by the time students returned to school Sept. 8. Regardless, overcrowding is expected to be a lingering issue at Ogden given the record number of Downtown apartments under construction. Additionally, the Lakeshore East master developer, Chicago-based Magellan Development, is supposed to build a neighborhood school as part of the community's master plan, but has yet to do so. A Magellan spokesman did not have an immediate comment on the school's status. 

"This does need to be addressed in the Downtown area, otherwise it's going to get exponentially worse," Beyer said. Ogden International High School, 1250 W. Erie St., draws students from all over the city and does not have an overcrowding problem. 

Parents' first choice would be to expand the elementary school, perhaps by adding a floor to its existing building. But Todd Babbitz, CPS' chief transformation officer, said that would be unlikely anytime soon given the school district's financial woes. A new school "annex" typically costs $20 million, he said.

"We're under absolutely tremendous budget pressure right now," Babbitz told parents Wednesday. "Even with $200 million in announced cuts last week, we still have a massive budget hole." 

Ogden Elementary is hardly the only CPS school dealing with overcrowding, or a suspicion that some students are arriving from outside boundary lines. Yet, it might be among the first to go so far as auditing student addresses. Beyer said he was already taking some steps in his investigation after consulting with CPS' legal department, and believed there was no preceding audit he could emulate. CPS officials did not immediately return messages seeking comment. 

Beyer received LSC approval Wednesday to begin his investigation, which as of now he said "basically involves contacting families that we suspect should be enrolled elsewhere." His future options include asking all Ogden parents to re-enroll their children, and/or asking parents to mail proofs of residency and the administration confirming by making home visits. He does not want to resort to having parents report on other parents who they suspect are sending their children to the school from outside the district. 

Whichever way it goes, the audit is a process that will likely be time-consuming and generate a lot of uncomfortable conversations between parents and Beyer, who just began his Ogden tenure earlier this month. There are many gray areas that could be brought to light in terms of how parents define their residences and custody of their children, but Beyer believes CPS' general rule calls for sending children to schools in the neighborhoods where they sleep on most school nights. 

"I'm just going to try to be as delicate as possible. ... I'm honestly afraid it could be hundreds of students that don't belong and if that happens it could devastate the school," he said, but adding: "It comes back to parental responsibility and civic responsibility: to work with your local community and city to maintain the quality of your school." 

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