The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
Why It Matters
No other school district has attempted to do what Chicago Public Schools is planning to this fall: close more than one in 10 school buildings, the vast majority of them in African-American communities.
CPS insists that closures will pave the way for displaced students to attend better schools. But the evidence points in the opposite direction. A University of Chicago Consortium on School Research study found that most displaced children ended up in schools that were not much better. CPS also cannot account for 11 percent of the students from the four small elementary schools it shut down last year.
CPS cites population loss as the driving force behind underutilization of schools. But children in predominantly black neighborhoods with large numbers of underutilized schools are more likely to be “siphoned away” to schools outside their community, compared to children from more diverse and middle-class neighborhoods.
The schools set to close this year face a host of social ills in the surrounding community, from homelessness to unemployment. More public money was spent over the past decade to incarcerate residents from those areas than on the schools slated for closure.
Where are all the children who should be crossing 71st Street?
The bell has just rung at Bond Elementary School in Englewood, and students are coming out of the front door. Some older children linger, talking and chasing each other on the sidewalk in front of the school. But it is a blustery winter day and most of the children rush home.
Bond was the designated welcoming school for about 200 students from Guggenheim, which was shut down last year. Guggenheim’s attendance area was to the south of 71st Street, while Bond’s boundary was to the north. So in theory, several hundred children should be headed south at 71st and May, where Bond is located.
Anticipating the new students, CPS hired a crossing guard to help them get across 71st Street, a major artery that is typically quite busy. The district also brought in community people to watch over the students as they made their way home in the rough South Side neighborhood, with its mix of vacant lots, boarded-up bungalows and some nicely kept homes.
One young woman, a former Guggenheim student now in high school, walks with her younger sister across the street, heading south. Rose Traylor grabs her granddaughter’s hand and heads that way too. Only a few others follow.
The answer to the question of why so few students trek south across 71st is simple: Not many of the former Guggenheim students ended up at Bond.
“We all scattered,” says Traylor, whose husband and children attended Guggenheim.
For more than a decade, the mayor and school district officials have shuttered schools under the basic premise that, in their place, new schools will flourish in impoverished communities like Englewood and give children a better chance at a good education.
But some activists and parents found fault with that premise from the beginning. Critics said they saw scant evidence that most students would be better off, right away or in the future, if a school closed.
A comprehensive study on the impact of closings found that most students displaced by shut-downs between 2001 and 2006 landed in new schools that were not strong enough to help them raise their academic achievement. The study was done by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
The critics also feared that children would fall through the cracks and get “lost in the system” during the upheaval. That fear has particular importance this year as CPS prepares to close 54 schools—the most ever closed in a single year by a major urban school district.
The latest announcement of closings has thrust Chicago into the bright glare of the national spotlight. Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and New York City have closed dozens of schools in recent years and plan to close more this year, but not as many, at one time, as Chicago.
As Philadelphia’s school officials were considering more closings this winter, a local organization, Research for Action, issued a paper that analyzed the impact of closings. All but one study found negative or insignificant academic impact, according to the brief. The review also underscored that not much is known about what happens to students who are displaced, says Kate Shaw, Research for Action’s executive director.
“There is not enough comprehensive information about how this affects a city, a neighborhood, a student,” Shaw says.
Answering these questions is important, she says, because so many closings take place in districts grappling with other problems. Therefore, there’s little guarantee that a closing will mean a student will end up in a better school and community.
Nationally as well as in Chicago, most school closings are slated to take place in African-American communities that are already struggling with poverty, crime, the aftermath of the housing crisis and long-term racial segregation.
Since the Consortium study was released, CPS officials have provided minimal specific information about the displaced students.
But this year, under some duress, they presented data about students displaced by closings and other actions in 2012. Activists and lawmakers on the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, a committee created by legislators, repeatedly asked for the information over several months before getting it.
Once the task force members saw the data, they said the plight of displaced students confirms fears about the negative potential impact of closings. They found the information particularly distressing given what, at the time, was expected to be a record number of closings.
In 2012, CPS closed only four small elementary schools that altogether enrolled about 500 students. In June, 467 kindergarten through 7th-grade students were at the closed schools. Of those, it’s unclear what happened with 51 children.
CPS officials acknowledge that they don’t know where 23 of those students ended up and did not provide definitive information for another 28; 23 of those 28 were from Guggenheim.
Catalyst Chicago requested details about the 28 children for three weeks. Spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler finally said they were “Grade 20,” a limited-use code that denotes “profoundly disabled” students for whom a grade-level assignment is inappropriate.
“Grade 20 students would not necessarily be projected to a particular welcoming school if the services they required were not available at said school,” Ziegler wrote in an e-mail.
But special education experts and former teachers say this explanation does not sound plausible and would mean that virtually all of the special education students at Guggenheim were profoundly disabled. Citywide, only 1 percent of students are designated in that category.
Former Guggenheim staff say they did not have any students who were profoundly disabled. “It is a lie,” says Kimberly Walls, who now teaches at Fulton Elementary. “They don’t care like they say they do. If they did, they would track these students the correct way.”
Walls says that students should have had a transfer school on their records at the end of last year, and that transfer school should have been held responsible for finding the student in September.
“They should have been knocking on the child’s door trying to find out where they went because [CPS] caused the instability in this child’s life,” she says.
Counting the students whose whereabouts CPS does not know, and the “Grade 20” students, some 11 percent of students displaced by closings in 2012—children who are still in elementary school—are not accounted for.
Patricia Rivera, who previously ran the department in CPS that serves homeless students, acknowledges that the number of missing students isn’t large given the size of the district as a whole. But she worries about a possible multiplier effect: large numbers of missing children when dozens of schools close.
“Projecting into the future, this could result in a huge number of children lost to the system,” Rivera said at a meeting of the facilities task force, where the results of this analysis were first announced. “Instead of closing schools, we need to look for students.”
Among students whom CPS successfully tracked from 2012, fewer than 45 percent enrolled in their designated welcoming school.
Todd Babbitz, chief transformation officer for CPS, pointed out that parents can basically take their children where they want.
“Families do exercise choice,” he told the facilities task force.
But though the district’s mantra is one giving parents the chance to choose a better school, few students landed at one. Nearly 56 percent of displaced students wound up at low-achieving, racially isolated, underutilized schools. Fewer than 10 percent went to high-performing schools; just 15 enrolled in a magnet school and only one got a spot at a selective enrollment school.
Consortium researcher Marisa de la Torre says the ground-breaking 2009 study showed that significant academic improvement only occurred when displaced students transferred to the best schools—those in either the top or next-to-the-top quartile on state standardized tests. “That is when you see big things,” she says.
To get to these schools, students mostly had to travel outside their neighborhood, de la Torre adds.
The timing of the closings announcement hampers the ability of parents to get their children into significantly better schools, says Cecile Carroll, an organizer for Blocks Together and a member of the facilities task force. Last year, the announcement came in December, just weeks before the deadline to apply for magnet and selective enrollment schools.
This year the announcement was made on March 21, well after applications were due and acceptances sent out.
“They don’t have this timing right,” Carroll says.
At Guggenheim, Walls says many parents simply enrolled their children at the school nearest to them or the one most convenient for them. Some principals, worried about low enrollment, recruited students.
“A lot of our parents were uninformed and just went with the flow,” she says.
A major problem is that schools most likely to be closed because they are underutilized and low-performing are most likely to be in neighborhoods that don’t have better choices for families and children.
A case in point: The closure of Price Elementary in Bronzeville, a neighborhood that has been hard hit in various rounds of school actions. CPS made the National Teachers Academy, a Level 2 school that is run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, the designated welcoming school. (AUSL is a non-profit teacher training organization that operates turnaround schools.)
At 10 years old, the Academy is in a newer building by district standards. But it is 22 blocks away from Price, in a different neighborhood—far enough away that CPS took the unusual step of providing buses for students. This year, Byrd-Bennett says she will provide transportation for displaced students when the designated receiving school is more than 0.8 miles away.
Activists with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization say busing has been problematic. At first, the students were waiting outside Price. When winter set in, activists convinced the district to allow students to wait inside Robinson Elementary. Then, after some conflicts with the Robinson children, CPS moved the former Price students to King College Prep nearby, where they now wait for the bus in a classroom.
Jitu Brown, KOCO’s education organizer, says he and other activists also had to push CPS to provide supervision on the bus.
“We have had to pressure them every step of the way,” Brown says.
Some parents or guardians might see the shut-down of a neighborhood school as an opportunity to get their children to a better school. But even with these intentions, the task is not always easy.
Tonya Beckman was determined she would find a better choice for her grandchildren.
They had attended Guggenheim, which is around the corner from her house. She liked the school because it was small and teachers reached out to the family when they had concerns about the children. Beckman volunteered at Guggenheim and served on the local school council.
But once the decision to close Guggenheim was made, Beckman set out to find a markedly better school. “I wanted schools that were scoring above 70 percent [meets or exceeds] on the ISAT,” says Beckman, a retired teacher.
She found two schools nearby that met that requirement: Mays, a neighborhood school with nearly 79 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards in 2011; and Kershaw, a magnet school. Beckman won the lottery and got a seat at Kershaw for her granddaughter Katrina, who was heading into 4th grade.
Beckman then went to Mays and tried to get them to take her grandson. As is the case with all neighborhood schools, if there is space, principals can decide to take children in. Mays is considered underutilized under CPS standards.
But Beckman’s grandson is in special education and she suspects Mays’ school staff looked at his education plan and avoided registering him. “I had a meeting set up with the principal and they called and cancelled the meeting and never rescheduled,” she says.
Beckman did not know where her grandson was going to attend school until August, when the Kershaw principal offered him a seat there.
Beckman likes Kershaw because her grandchildren have been able to go to tutoring and the teachers and staff are “professional.” The children have struggled a bit, but generally they are doing okay academically.
However, Beckman is concerned about Katrina’s social development. Back at Guggenheim, she was outgoing and had a lot of friends. “The teachers would tell me that she’s bright and articulate,” Beckman says.
But at Kershaw, Katrina is quiet and reserved.
“She feels like the students don’t like her,” Beckman says. “The teachers say she sits off to the side and doesn’t say much. I keep telling her to give it a chance.”
This speaks to one of the significant problems with closing schools, Beckman says. “It is just very disruptive to kids’ lives.”
Another issue with closings and choice is school dynamics. Just because a school is doing well one year doesn’t mean those dynamics won’t change. That’s what happened with Guggenheim and Bond.
In a letter to parents, CPS officials wrote: “By transitioning the students currently enrolled at Guggenheim to Bond, CPS believes that these students will be given access to an improved educational environment.”
At the time, CPS touted the fact that Bond was a Level 2 school—the mid-level rating given by CPS based on a number of measures, including test scores and teacher and student attendance. But this year (based on its performance last year) Bond fell to a Level 3, the lowest rating CPS gives.
Perhaps sensing that Bond was not all that much better than other choices, parents didn’t flock there. But the fact that so few Guggenheim students went to Bond had consequences. Last spring, anticipating an influx of newcomers, CPS gave Bond 14 additional teachers and money for six parent workers—workers the school didn’t have before, according to the school’s budget.
But when only 94 students showed up, Bond ended up with 162 fewer children overall than expected. The school had to eliminate 8.5 teacher positions and two of the parent workers. Bond got so few students that it is still considered underutilized, and the one factor that saved it from landing on this year’s potential school closing list is the fact that it was a receiving school last year.
Current Bond Principal Valesta Cobbs declined to comment for this article.
Traylor is not convinced that Bond is better than Guggenheim. Her granddaughter says she likes her teacher, and the little girl has received awards for being a good citizen and wearing her uniform every day. But the classes seem large to Traylor, and the school seems more hectic.
“It is over-packed,” says Traylor.
Traylor and her husband, Derrick, didn’t want to see Guggenheim closed. “Everyone knew everyone,” he says. His brothers created a petition and collected signatures to try to keep it open.
Though Derrick Traylor says the neighborhood has gotten worse, he notes that there was a closeness among the staff and families at Guggenheim that doesn’t exist at Bond. He is particularly unhappy that sometimes the school opens 45 minutes late, leaving children waiting in the cold.
“On those days, I just take my granddaughter back home,” he says.
He also doesn’t trust that his granddaughter will get all she needs academically at Bond. After school, he says he “home-schools” her, giving her extra work to make sure she is staying sharp.
Six months into the school year, Rose Traylor says she still hasn’t gotten used to Bond. On the playground that blustery afternoon, she pulls her granddaughter close to keep her out of the pushing and shoving, running and chasing that the older students are doing.
“It is rough here,” Traylor says, pulling the child, dressed in a purple winter coat, along with her. “It was nothing like this at Guggenheim. They had more control over the kids.”
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