Nichols Middle School parents urge district to address high enrollment rates, overcrowding

Nichols+Middle+School%2C+800+Greenleaf+St.+Parents+of+Nichols+students+sent+a+letter+to+administration+concerned+with+high+enrollment+rates.+

Julia Esparza/Daily Senior Staffer

Nichols Middle School, 800 Greenleaf St. Parents of Nichols students sent a letter to administration concerned with high enrollment rates.

Sneha Dey, Development and Recruitment Editor

The cafeteria is so overcrowded at Nichols Middle School that a student eligible for free-and-reduced lunch brings food from home, said Julie Cutter, a parent of a sixth- and eighth-grader at the school.

“He actually cannot make it through the hot lunch line and then eat his meal without having to scarf it down,” Cutter said of the student, whose name has been withheld for his privacy. “This is a family with not a lot of means… To me, that’s an equity issue.”

In the 2015-16 school year, 580 students were enrolled at Nichols, located at 800 Greenleaf St. The enrollment number has grown to 797 students in the 2018-19 school year, about a 37 percent increase over the last four years. The capacity is set at 800.

Nichols parents raised their enrollment and capacity concerns in a letter addressed to the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Board of Education in April. Cutter is one of over 200 current and future parents who signed the letter.

Cutter said her son talks about “getting bumped around” in the hallways. She said she signed the letter to demand physical safety and fair access to resources.

The letter highlighted the strain increased enrollment has put on student safety, learning environments and social service needs.

In response to the letter, District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren said his team is conducting an analysis of enrollment numbers and patterns at Nichols. Goren said he wants to better understand the root causes of the enrollment increase. He said he is still determining the timeline for the scope of the work.

“I appreciate the letter, I appreciate the concerns… the work that needs to be done is not a critical, quick fix,” Goren said. “It’s something that has to be done carefully, analytically.”

Goren emphasized the need to contextualize the enrollment concerns at Nichols with other middle schools in the district. Enrollment numbers at Haven Middle School, located at 2417 Prairie Ave, have also increased, but overall enrollment is relatively flat, Goren said.

According to the letter, teachers have been burdened by the increased enrollment. The entire eighth grade switched floors, and many teachers are now without a dedicated classroom. Special education classrooms that used to be assigned to one teacher now accommodate up to four.

According to one Nichols parent, Jennifer Leigh, several learning spaces have been divided. She said her seventh-grade daughter took art in the fall. Her daughter’s class shared the room with another class section and was without a functioning sink.

When her daughter needed counseling last year, Leigh said the school’s social worker was very responsive and even encouraged walk-in sessions. But every time her daughter has since tried to stop by, a social worker has never been available, Leigh said.

Leigh credits this absence to a shortage of staff. The district has not increased the number t of social workers or psychologists allotted to the school since the enrollment increase, according to the letter.

Leigh, the co-president of the Parent Teacher Association at Nichols, said she and the PTA executive board had been putting together enrollment data and gathering stories since the start of 2019.

The letter called on the administration to reevaluate enrollment and offered long-term and immediate solutions.

Specifically, the letter recommends halting all mid-year and permissive transfers — in which students request to enroll in a school outside their designated area. In the current school year, 59 students from the permissive transfer list enrolled in Nichols, and the school continues to accept mid-year transfers. Leigh said the PTA executive board saw addressing transfers as a quick, easy and cost-effective fix.

“There’s enough space in the district,” Leigh said. “I can understand why parents want their kids to go to Nichols, but…the district needs to look at (D65 schools) overall.”

Long term, Leigh urges the district to holistically look at attendance area boundaries.

District 65 has historically struggled with overcrowding. In 2012, the school board approved major renovations at Haven and Nichols to address overcrowding issues. The Nichols project increased the number of classrooms and expanded the student cafeteria. Renovations at Chute Middle School, 1400 Oakton St., were completed two years later in 2014.

Nine years ago, Steve Jones watched Lincoln Elementary School, in the Chicago Public Schools system, work to alleviate overcrowding issues. Jones, then a parent at Lincoln and now a parent at Nichols, urged the district to address the issues at Nichols in a more rapid and effective way than CPS had done.

“I’m now seeing a middle school undergoing the same kinds of pressure of enrollment, of resources,” Jones said at the April board meeting. “I hope that in this situation it doesn’t take a full two to three years of coming to meetings, of lobbying and discussing.”

This story was updated with additional comments from Paul Goren.

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