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Brentano School Sees Surge In Enrollment After Once Being On Chopping Block

By Mina Bloom | March 23, 2017 6:10am
 Principal Seth Lavin arrived at Brentano last year.
Principal Seth Lavin arrived at Brentano last year.
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DNAinfo/Mina Bloom

LOGAN SQUARE — Brentano Math and Science Academy, which was among more than 100 public schools on the district's short list for closure in 2013, is making a comeback.

Over the last three years, the elementary school, 2723 N. Fairfield Ave., has seen a dramatic increase in lottery applications for kindergarten spots. The school's new principal, Seth Lavin, said that's a strong indicator of future growth.

The applications have more than doubled, according to data provided by Chicago Public Schools. The school went from 67 applications in 2015 to 98 in 2016 and 142 in 2017.

Applications don't necessarily equal higher enrollment because many families apply to as many as 20 schools. But in the case of Brentano, enrollment has increased — though not as drastically.

The school ranked 23rd in the city for the highest increase in enrollment from 2015 to 2017. Enrollment went up from 367 students to 400  — and those totals don't include pre-Kindergarten students.

Naturally, the school's kindergarten class saw an increase, too. The school enrolled 42 kindergartners in 2015, 52 in 2016 and 68 in 2017. 

Lavin said the dramatic increase in kindergarten applications represents a renewed interest in the school, which was on the chopping block just four years ago due to low enrollment but was ultimately spared after the school community fought to keep it open.

"When you see these schools that have struggled get new investment or new energy or tell their story in a different way and grow in terms of how well they're doing with their kids and how many families they bring in, it proves that these schools have futures and we need to invest in them," Lavin said, adding that investment means both money and energy.

A number of factors have contributed to the growth at Brentano, according to Lavin and parents.

Since 2013, the school has become more community-oriented. The school launched a toddler play group, where kids from around the neighborhood are invited to play together once a week so families can get to know Brentano before it comes time to send them to elementary school.

Last year was the first year Brentano set up a booth at the Logan Square Farmers Market to spread the word about the positive things happening at the school. Since Lavin arrived last school year, he has made it a point to invite the broader neighborhood to events that were normally reserved for the school community like Dr. Seuss Day, musicals and a Halloween-themed haunted hous.

"These things were happening [before], but it wasn't community-oriented. We weren't opening the doors, we weren't putting in on Facebook, we weren't fliering the neighborhood," Lavin said. "We've made a really concerted effort over the last two years not to just make the school better, but to open the doors and get the community in."

That, plus fresh paint jobs, new signs and the addition of music and art class to the school roster thanks to creative fundraising, have made the school more attractive, according to Lavin and parents.

"We're taking all of the steps we can to make the experience of walking in as exciting and as uplifting as we can because we want to signal to people that this is a place of warmth and growth and we want kids to happy," Lavin said.

Sandra Diaz, who has lived in Logan Square for more than 20 years, sends her fifth-grade daughter, Ashlie, to Brentano. Though Diaz is enamored with the school today, she was apprehensive about sending her daughter there initially because she went there for her eighth grade and didn't have the best experience.

"We were babysat, to be honest," said Diaz, the vice president of Brentano's parent advisory council.

Back then, the neighborhood was rife with gang activity. When Diaz went to Brentano, kids knew not to cross Diversey Avenue between George and Sacramento because it was the gang dividing line.

"Now I see Ashlie and the big growth that she has been having since all of the changes have been happening. She's more enthusiastic about reading and she will come home and tell me what she's working on," said Diaz, who credited Lavin for bringing more communication and advertising to the school.

The school is also beginning to attract new homeowners like Matt McCabe, who has lived in the area for six years but recently bought a home nearby. He's so committed to Brentano that he's not only planning to to send his 1½-year-old son there when he's of school age, but he also joined the school's Local School Council to help the school grow.

"I think it's because of great leadership but also really great teachers," McCabe said. "I feel before my kid even getting here that they would be welcome and safe and nurtured. As a parent, that's what you hope for."

It's no secret that Logan Square has changed. Over the last 15 years, the neighborhood has lost more Hispanic residents than of any of the city's 77 community areas, according to U.S. Census data. Over that same period, the white population in the neighborhood increased by about 10,340 residents, a 47.6 percent increase.

While demographics at Brentano aren't drastically different than they were 15 years ago (the school still mostly enrolls low-income, Hispanic students), Lavin said many of the new students belong to affluent white families.

"Probably most of our growth is those families, but it's not exclusively those families," Lavin emphasized. 

The school is continuing to attract longtime Logan Square residents like Diaz, Lavin said. Part of Lavin's job, he said, is to balance the newcomers with the longtime residents while allowing the school to grow.

"We have to bring in who we can because we have to grow. If we don't grow, there's no future for this school. If more affluent people live in the neighborhood, we have to bring them in too," he said.

"The other thing we can do is advocate to the extent we're able to for affordable housing in the neighborhood that makes it possible for families who are being priced out to stay. We don't want this to be a school that goes from one student population from another."

Brentano is still a long way from solving its enrollment problem. The school currently has just 470 students enrolled when CPS considers ideal enrollment there to be 960. But Lavin and parents believe the upward trajectory will only continue.

"When a school appears to be struggling you need to see that with investment, it can be extraordinary," Lavin said. "We want to keep adding 50 kids a year."