Chicago Public Schools touted a smooth start to the school closing process this week by announcing that 78 percent of students at schools being shut down have been enrolled at another school, most at the one designated for them by the district.
But the district's figure may be inflated, as administrators at some closing schools said that because they were under pressure to get children signed up, they went ahead and enrolled students whose parents could not be contacted.
Tanya Saunders-Wolffe, a counselor at Owens Elementary on the Far South Side, said her school's administration was told by officials with the district's regional network to enroll children whose parents had not participated in an early enrollment program.
She said about two-thirds of the school's students were enrolled that way for next year. Owens was one of 12 schools that CPS records show have 100 percent of their students enrolled for the coming year.
"We did what we were told," Saunders-Wolffe said. "We were told by the network to automatically enroll students in welcoming schools where parents did not respond."
A principal at a South Side school that is being closed, who asked not to be identified, said staff enrolled about a quarter of their students at the CPS-designated receiving school after being unable to reach their parents through notes and phone calls.
A source at CPS headquarters confirmed that schools were pressed to get students enrolled early and that officials were concerned about some of the enrollment figures.
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll denied that there has been any pressure on schools to enroll students and said there was no directive to enroll students without parents' consent.
"Children could not be enrolled unless their parent was there in person with ID to enroll their student," Carroll said. "It would defeat the purpose of doing this early enrollment work. The whole rationale for doing this was so we could help principals better prepare their budgets and staffing plans to prevent as much movement as possible on the 20th day."
The questions over enrollment are another hit to the district's credibility, which has repeatedly come under fire during the process that led to the school board's decision to close 49 elementary schools and one high school program.
In a news release Monday that gave the 78 percent enrollment figure, CPS said it was "moving forward on a smooth and safe transition for all students" affected by the school closings.
"I am encouraged to see so many parents from closing schools already choosing to early enroll their children in their new school," schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in the release.
Enrollment figures will play a larger role this year in school budgets: CPS is using a system that allocates money to principals based on the number of enrolled students.
By enrolling students at designated receiving schools, staffs at closing schools also raise the chance for their teachers to be hired in the coming year to teach at their students' new school. Under the teachers contract reached after the strike last fall, qualified teachers are in line for jobs at the receiving schools if positions are available.
"For us, it guarantees some of our teachers positions if our students all remain in the welcoming school," Saunders-Wolffe said.
CPS started its early registration drive the day after the board's vote in May to close schools, hoping to give principals — especially those at schools taking in displaced students — an idea of how many students they'd have when the next school year begins Aug. 26.
Carroll said there was no push in the last days of the registration drive to boost enrollment figures, and she noted that many schools show a number of students being enrolled at schools other than the designated receiving school.
At more than half of 45 schools being closed this fall, 50 percent or more of the students were enrolled in new schools in the final day and a half of the enrollment drive. (Two schools are closing over two years, and two others are special education schools where enrollment was handled by the central office).
The race to enroll students was necessitated by the district's monthslong delay in making a decision on the closings. Districts are supposed to identify schools marked for closing by Dec. 1, but CPS won an extension from the General Assembly, with officials saying they needed more time to engage the community.
CPS has just three months to execute Mayor Rahm Emanuel's massive closing plan, which involves moving hundreds of pieces of furniture, launching and completing millions of dollars in capital work at receiving schools and developing a safety plan for each school that will be closing.
A source at the district's headquarters said officials have discussed problems with the enrollment numbers and are concerned that students won't be showing up in the fall where they've been enrolled.
"It's a big mess," said a principal at one South Side receiving school. "Just because they went ahead and enrolled students doesn't mean these kids are going to show up. So all this is per-pupil funding — who knows where it will end up going because the money follows the students."