BELMONT-CRAGIN — More than 850 freshmen who live in Steinmetz College Prep's attendance boundaries are studying elsewhere, according to data released by Chicago Public Schools.
The students represent precious resources escaping the high school, at 3030 N. Mobile Ave., as its plummeting enrollment repeatedly forces administrators to lay off teachers and cut programs. Steinmetz's population has shrunk nearly 25 percent since 2012, as more parents have opted to bus their kids to far-flung high schools or enroll them at nearby charter schools.
And as Chicago Public Schools officials cite rampant school overcrowding in their plan to build a $75 million high school campus in Steinmetz's attendance boundaries, 36th Ward Ald. Gilbert Villegas wants to know how the situation got so dire.
"Why even have boundaries if no one's going to follow them?" Villegas said.
CPS' recent affinity for "school choice" — a policy that gives parents greater control over where they send their children — opened the floodgates for new students to pack the halls of Taft High School, 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., while Steinmetz was left to wither, the alderman said.
While Taft and Steinmetz were both built to hold about 2,200 students, the former is straining to accommodate nearly 3,300 bodies, while Steinmetz has a little more than 1,300 pupils, according to CPS data.
"There's a whole litany of things CPS didn't take into account here," Villegas said. "They're the ones who created this crisis, so now it's on them to fix it."
In a written statement, CPS spokesman Michael Passman defended the plan to build a new school, saying officials "believe there is an opportunity to improve access to resources at Taft while maintaining a healthy student population at Steinmetz."
"As this process moves forward, we will work with both school communities to ensure a long-term plan is in place to effectively support both schools," the statement continued.
But Steinmetz Principal Stephen Ngo, now in his fifth year on the job, has seen a perfect storm of factors sweep away his student population since he started.
"Parents have more choice, and that's one factor," Ngo said. "But the citywide population of school-age children is going down, and meanwhile you have new [charter] schools popping up and creating more seats."
Ngo was forced to lay off 12 staff members last year, he said, including the school's only librarian.
At a Feb. 8 meeting of Steinmetz's Local School Council, a CPS official unveiled data underlying the district's calculations for building the new campus in the Dunning neighborhood, which falls entirely inside Steinmetz's attendance boundaries.
A map shows the attendance boundaries of four Northwest Side high schools. [Chicago Public Schools]
Steinmetz parents bemoaned the potential fallout from losing access to students from Dever, Canty and Bridge elementary schools, who will all likely attend the new school. But skittish neighborhood parents had already dried up the reservoir of Dunning students long before the new campus plan was rolled out, according to James Dispensa, the director of demographics and planning for CPS.
Of 289 eighth-graders enrolled in Canty, Dever and Bridge in fall 2015, just 45 attended Steinmetz a year later, according to CPS data. In all, officials calculated, just 18 percent of students who graduated from public elementary schools fully inside Steinmetz's boundaries in 2016 went on to attend their neighborhood high school.
"Boundaries aren't deciding where students are going to school — parents decide that," Dispensa said at the Feb. 8 meeting. "Boundary is not destiny ... so I would encourage us to think about what it takes to strengthen Steinmetz's attraction."
Ngo takes that challenge seriously, he said. The reality of school choice means that if his school wants resources, it will have to compete for them.
"Back in the day, every one of our feeder schools was sending us students, but that's just not the case anymore," Ngo said. "So if we want to get ahead, we need to get our name out there."
Even after officials took a $150,000 bite out of his budget halfway through the school year, Ngo is expanding efforts to market the school through community outreach and elementary school visits, he said. And with a sharp focus on boosting nonacademic metrics like attendance and college preparedness, the principal is confident the school will see its School Quality Rating nudge up by at least one level this year.
In the meantime, Villegas will lobby school officials to score Steinmetz a larger slice of the shrinking budget pie, while tapping into tax increment financing funds for a potential renovation of the 98-year-old school, he said.
But Ngo takes responsibility for reversing course on his school's flagging enrollment.
"I can't criticize anyone else until I get my own house in order," Ngo said. "We have to be in the mindset of making Steinmetz a jewel that parents will want to send their kids to. We have to work toward that."