Hirsch Metropolitan High School, in South Shore, once had more than 2,000 students. It now has fewer than 300.
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Hirsch Metropolitan High School, in Greater Grand Crossing, once had more than 2,000 students. It now has fewer than 300.

A mayor who wanted to privatize his school system would realize it couldn’t be done in one swoop. There’d be too much opposition from parents and union teachers. A better plan would be to add charters slowly, and let them nibble off students from the traditional schools. Many of the regular schools would wither away, until closing them seemed only prudent.

The creeping transition to a charter school system has been going on for more than a decade now in Chicago. It’s happening despite a lack of evidence that charters generally improve education.

The most fundamental problem facing the Chicago Public Schools is that 85 percent of its students are from low-income families. Poor children are harder to educate, and do better in schools with socioeconomically diverse enrollments. Changing the student demographics in Chicago would require a major regional effort that included, for starters, more affordable housing throughout the metro area, and city-suburban magnet schools.

Charter school creep, which in Chicago began under Mayor Richard M. Daley and has continued under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has allowed city officials and business leaders to convince themselves that the predicament of failing schools is being addressed. It’s being addressed, according to charter advocates, partly through the magic of “choice”. But a choice that charters haven’t offered parents, and can’t in Chicago, are schools that are socioeconomically diverse. Charters can’t change that 85 percent bottom line.

They have, however, bitten away at the traditional schools, which is part of the reason 50 “underutilized” elementary schools were closed last year.

Closing high schools is more dangerous politically, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel backed off that idea last year. But the enrollments of many of the high schools are withering, and soon, closing some of them will seem only prudent.

On WBEZ Tuesday, Linda Lutton described the plight of students at Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy. They’ve been taught mainly by substitutes this year, and have often had no classwork or homework. Austin Business’s problems stem largely from the fact that it has only 186 students. In October, Lutton detailed the troubles at Hirsch Metropolitan High School, a school in Greater Grand Crossing that had more than 2,000 students in the 1960s and now has under 300. The shriveling student body means fewer teachers and clubs, and some required classes are only offered online.

“I am not saying that the creation of charter and contract schools caused the decline of neighborhood high schools, but students are choosing other high schools,” Jim Dispensa, senior manager of business optimization for CPS, told Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago last fall.

Dispensa might not want to say it exactly, but the numbers speak plainly. Ten years ago, CPS had 104,000 high school students, and now it has more—112,000. But as Karp pointed out, ten years ago, the district had 106 high schools, and now it has 154.

As enrollments shrink, high schools “are virtually forced to drop courses like Advanced Placement, art and foreign languages because they have too few students to make them viable,” Karp wrote. “They also can’t support many sports teams or extracurricular activities.” They become “less attractive to students.”

And then they shrink further.

In January, the school board approved seven more charter schools, including five with seats for high schoolers. The district has pledged not to close high schools in the near future, a promise it likely will keep until after next year’s mayoral election.

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that Hirsch Metropolitan High School is in Greater Grand Crossing.