District 65’s “New School-Referendum Committee” began its work in earnest on Feb 24, considering enrollment projections and building capacity. The Committee’s charge is to evaluate whether the District should establish a new school in the City’s Fifth Ward.

Some Committee members appeared unsure whether the data established a need for a new school based on enrollment projections and building capacity, and they asked the District to provide additional data. The Committee is scheduled to discuss the new data and other factors bearing on the need for a new school at its next meeting.

Enrollment Projections

School District 65 is currently projecting that its K-8 enrollment will increase by a total of 370 students in the next five years (measured as the difference in enrollment at the start of the 2010-11 school year and the 2015-16 school year), with most of the increase occurring at the middle schools.

The projections show an increase at four K-5 schools and a decrease at eight, for a net increase of only 44 students at the District’s K-5 schools in the next five years. The District projects a net increase of 316 students at the middle schools, and minor fluctuations at the magnet schools.

Dewey is projected to increase its enrollment by 23 students over the next five years and Willard by 52 students. The School Board decided on Feb. 22 to approve bids for construction work at each of those schools that will add classroom space and make renovations at a cost of about $2.5 million at Dewey and $3.2 million at Willard. Mr. Brinson said these additions will handle the anticipated enrollment at these schools.

Lincoln School is projected to show an increased enrollment of 128 students over the next five years, by far the highest increase at any of the K-5 schools.

Middle schools projected to have significant increases in enrollment are Haven, with an increase projected at 178 students and Nichols with an increase at 128 students.

Enrollment and Building Capacity

At the Committee’s Feb. 24 meeting, Mr. Brinson presented the enrollment projections recently prepared by District 65, as well as those prepared last year by John Kasarda, a demographer retained by the District. In one summary chart Mr. Brinson presented the enrollment projections by school for each of the next five years, and estimates of capacity at each school that had been prepared by ARCON, the District’s architects, and by the District.

While it would at first blush appear to be a straight-forward exercise to estimate the capacity of a school to accommodate increased student enrollment, the exercise becomes complex in practice.

The capacity of each school will differ – sometimes substantially – depending on the assumptions used in estimating capacity. Mr. Brinson’s estimate of capacity at each school assumed that rooms with less than 600 square feet would not be used as classrooms (he said newly constructed classrooms are generally 900-1,200 square feet), that classrooms would not be set aside for art and music, and that each classroom would be filled to the maximum number of students permitted under the District’s class-size guidelines. These range from 23 students at kindergarten, 25 at first and second grade, 26 at third grade, 27 at fourth and fifth grades, and 30 at sixth-eighth grades.

Mr. Brinson said when a school reaches 80% capacity, it begins to create pressures on space. This may occur for a variety of reasons. For example, if there are 63 third-graders at a school, the District is required to provide three classrooms to accommodate those students under its guidelines, even though the maximum permitted under the guidelines would be 78 students for three classrooms. Those classrooms would be filled to 81% capacity.

Mr. Brinson presented data showing that six K-5 schools would reach 80% capacity at some point between now and 2014-15, using Dr. Kasarda’s mid-level enrollment projections.

Several Committee members noted, however, that if the District’s enrollment projections (rather than Dr. Kassarda’s) were used, only two of the K-5 schools would be over 80% capacity at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. One committee member suggested that the enrollment in the K-5 schools may be hitting a blip during the next five years, that would even out by the 2014-15 school year and carry through to the middle schools.

In response to this point, Mr. Brinson noted that Dr. Kasarda was projecting enrollment to continue to increase over the long term – by 208 students between 2014-15 and 2019-20.

Committee members asked Mr. Brinson to estimate school capacity using two different assumptions: a) that a classroom would be set aside for art at each school, and b) that classrooms would be set aside for art and music at each school. Mr. Brinson agreed to do that, and he volunteered to run the numbers using any other assumptions desired by the Committee.

Questions on Need

Dr. Murphy said valid questions included whether the District’s building capacity was stressed, whether this would ease over time, and whether the District had strategies to manage it. He suggested, though, that the Committee consider not only whether the schools’ space needs would become stressed, but also to consider what the Committee would like the schools to look like in the future.

School Board member Kim Weaver said a threshold issue the Committee should address is whether the District’s space needs were the driving consideration, or whether there were other considerations besides space.

Board member Jerome Summers has argued that African American students in the Fifth Ward lack a neighborhood school and have been bused to other schools for 40 years. He said that should be a consideration. Jean Luft, president of the District Educators Council, said she felt having a neighborhood school in the area proposed would be helpful to improve achievement of many at-risk students who reside in the area.

It is anticipated the Committee will continue its discussion on space needs at its next meeting, using additional data provided by Mr. Brinson. Committee members will also discuss other factors they consider important in reaching a decision on whether a new school is needed in the Fifth Ward.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...