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For smooth school closings, CPS has many promises to keep

From the Spring 2013 issue of Catalyst-Chicago School closings

As the saying goes, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Unfortunately, that saying does not bode well for the thousands of children who will be displaced when 54 schools shut down this year.

It’s also a bad omen for communities. The last thing Englewood, Austin or any of the neighborhoods—most of them poor and black—that stand to lose schools need is another boarded-up vacant building. (CPS says it is “working with community and city departments on a comprehensive planning process to determine the best use for unused buildings.”)

With CPS losing enrollment, officials insist that the closings are needed to “right-size” the district, to save money and to provide more resources in schools that will stay open.

But many long-time observers and community activists aren’t buying that. They see no evidence that mass closings, the largest ever in a major urban district, will bring anything but more chaos and turmoil to communities that already struggle with social and economic woes. Our chart on page 10 gives readers some hard statistics on the challenges faced by the 54 schools and their neighborhoods.

As we report in this issue of Catalyst In Depth, members of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, which was created by lawmakers, are already sounding the alarm about children “falling through the cracks.”

That fear is based in part on what happened last year, when CPS shut down four small elementary schools and displaced 467 students. CPS now cannot account for the whereabouts of 51 of those children, slightly more than one in 10 students. Yes, that’s a small number. But as task force members point out, what about the multiplier effect with 54 closings instead of four? If CPS can’t adequately track 467 children, why believe they can track thousands?

Critics also are skeptical of the promise that children will end up in high-achieving schools, which is the only way to make closings pay off academically. The district simply doesn’t have enough top-notch schools. And a University of Chicago Consortium on School Research study found that most students displaced in previous closings over five years ended up at schools that were only marginally better academically.

That’s what happened to Rose Traylor’s granddaughter when Guggenheim Elementary in Englewood closed last year. Guggenheim students were assigned to Bond, a Level 2 school that has since fallen to Level 3, the lowest performance rating. Traylor characterizes Bond as “rough.” Her husband says he has no confidence in its academics. 

CPS has promised to opeN new specialty programs at some receiving schools—in International Baccalaureate, arts and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) studies. But high-quality programs won’t happen overnight. Without ongoing teacher training and resources, the promise will end up as nothing more than public relations “spin” to sell closings as a sound educational idea.

“This is a group of people who historically have not done what they said they were going to,” says one knowledgeable observer. “For me to trust them, without vigilance, would be foolish on my part.”

The district has promised that none of the closed buildings will end up housing charter schools. But as part of this year’s plan, CPS has co-located charters with existing traditional schools. That practice has caused friction and controversy in the past.

Some 40 percent of previously shuttered schools now house charters or contract schools, and CPS plans to open more charters in coming years. Barring charters from closed buildings would be a 180-degree change of course from previous practice. Charters wouldn’t benefit either, as facilities are their top need. 

One promise that communities can likely have confidence in is that this year’s mass closings won’t be repeated next year. When CPS lobbied lawmakers for a bill to extend the deadline to announce this year’s closings, sources say the district refused to include in that law its five-year commitment not to close more schools. But there’s another factor: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not likely to want more upheaval over closings next year if he plans to seek re-election in 2015.

Despite the anger and anxiety, one activist says communities are driven by an over-arching goal: “The bottom line is how do we keep them from destroying our children in the [closings] process?”

3 comments

Valerie F.Leonard wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

There's Another Factor: The Mayor's Hubris

This is a wonderful op ed. Thanks for writing it. I don't believe that the Mayor and Barbara Byrd Bennett will keep their promise of a moratorium on school closings, regardless of an upcoming election. They said that performance would not be a factor in school closings, and we see that the rationale given for closing some schools is performance. We were told that no actions would be taken against high schools--yet there are some high schools on the list of schools to be closed.

The Mayor has publicly asked who would run against him, as if to suggest that there are no worthy challengers--in spite of the fact that only 2% of the respondents to a recent NBC poll indicated that they strongly approved of his performance (less than 20% actually approve or lean toward approving of his performance). He seems to march to the sound of his own drummer, and it doesn't matter what voters or tax payers think.

Lorraine Forte, Editor wrote 1 year 29 weeks ago

Response to "Mayor's Hubris"

I appreciate the feedback on this op-ed. I hope my main point came across: that CPS has a lot to live up to in making these closings go smoothly. I am not completely against any school closings, as the city's population loss means some schools simply don't have the enrollment to justify keeping them open. But surely such a large number of closings could have been rolled out over a couple of years rather than in one fell swoop.

Colleen Riley wrote 1 year 23 weeks ago

CPS's Math Problem

My name is Colleen Riley and I am a 4th grade teacher at Lafayette Elementary School in Chicago. Lafayette is on the school-closing list based on being classified by CPS as underutilized. The CPS formula that determines utilization is unfair because it doesn't take into consideration the diverse needs of the student population from school to school. It doesn't take into consideration the state laws that limit class size in the special education instructional environment.

CPS used a formula that expects 30 students in every classroom and came up with a total enrollment for a school that they consider to be 100% utilized. The formula also states that any school under 70% enrolled is considered underutilized. The CPS website indicates Lafayette’s ideal enrollment number as 1,320 students. They then took Lafayette’s actual enrollment to determine our utilization. Lafayette has 470 students so CPS determined that Lafayette is 36% utilized.

The problem is they never took into consideration that 30% of the 470 Lafayette students are special education students. Lafayette has 8 self-contained Special Education homerooms that are limited to 13 students by state law. CPS counted those as traditional classrooms that could have 30 students. To account for this discrepancy CPS should have adjusted by adding 17 students times 8 classes (136) and then add that to the 470, pushing our raw enrollment number for the utilization formula to 606.

Lafayette also has 4 resource rooms used for reading, writing and math replacement instruction that are needed for the 166 special education students. CPS should have adjusted for these rooms but did not. So, add 30 students times 4 rooms (120) to our enrollment number used for the utilization formula and we are up to 726.

There are 7 rooms needed to support the special education and Autism students. We have a room for the Speech Therapist, Occupational Therapist, Social Worker, Psychologist, Special Education coordinator, a Sensory Room, and a Life Skills room. All critical to servicing the unique needs of 66 special education students with Autism. Again, CPS did not adjust for these needs. So we add 30 students times 7 rooms (210) and we have 936 students to plug into the CPS utilization formula.

Based on this corrected math Lafayette is 71% utilized and should no longer be considered underutilized. As this is the single criterion for a school to be closed Lafayette should be taken off the list.

Every school is unique and needs to be evaluated based on its populations needs and not a one size fits all formula. It is my hope that the School Board will consider this as it deliberates on May 22.

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