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.
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Dozens of schools meet closings criteria
About 140 schools, most on the South Side, meet all the key components of the district’s draft criteria to be eligible for closing.
This week, the district is holding community forums on the proposed criteria. Sometime after Nov. 21, CEO Jean-Claude Brizard will issue final guidelines. A week and a half later, on Dec. 1, he must announce which schools he intends to close, according to state law. Principals say they have been told that the list is changing every day and that no firm decisions have been made.
Once closing decisions are announced, that will set off another round of public hearings about the specific actions. Dozens of community residents showed up to speak against the potential closings at a hearing Monday night. A recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that school closings in six urban districts (including Chicago) have not yielded substantial cost savings in the short term, although the long-term impact is not yet clear.
Chief Portfolio Officer Oliver Sicat told School Board members last month that academic performance will be the overriding factor in deciding which schools will close. Those schools rated at Level 3--the district’s lowest level based on ISAT test scores, growth in test scores and a few other factors-- for the past two years made the first cut.
However, elementary schools with ISAT test scores above that of neighboring schools, and high schools that graduate more students than average for their area, will likely get a pass this year. And schools that seem to be on an upward trajectory (i.e., in the 75th percentile or above on value-added test scores) also probably won’t be closed this year.
Other schools, such as turnarounds, are set for a reprieve under the draft guidelines.
Catalyst Chicago compiled this database of schools at performance Level 3 that are either eligible or exempt from closure under the criteria. Three areas, Grand Boulevard/Bronzeville on the South Side and Austin on the West Side, had more than 10 schools eligibile for closing.
Sicat told a group of parents gathered in Grand Boulevard last night that CPS officials won't close a school unless there's better option to which they can transfer students. "If we can immediately give students access to a higher performing school, then we will do it," he said.
What quantifies a better performing option has not been defined yet, though Sicat said schools in performance level 2, a step up from the lowest level, would be considered an improvement for students.
Principals, parents bracing for bad news
The district’s new school progress reports, handed out to parents during report card pick-up, specify a school’s performance level. But nowhere on the progress reports is there any mention of how important that number is in determining school closings.
Yet principals and their parents are well aware that they could be targeted. One, who asked not to be identified, said he was bracing for bad news. While building utilization is not supposed to be a factor, he noted that a combination of low academic performance and severe under-utilization makes his school a top contender.
Bass Elementary Principal Granzlee Banks Jr. says that a letter went out last week to parents whose schools did not meet AYP—Adequate Yearly Progress, under federal performance criteria—informing them that they have the right to transfer their children elsewhere. While AYP has nothing to do with school closings, he says several confused parents have approached him for clarification.
Banks stresses that no one in central office has told him anything definitive about Bass, in the Englewood-Gresham area, being closed. However, he realizes that the school’s low performance makes it vulnerable.
“I tell them that as a parent, [they] have choices and decisions about what you want for your child, but as a principal I am advocating for my school,” Banks says. He notes that it has been hard to make improvements given the school’s high mobility rate—in 2011, Bass had 45 percent mobility, more than twice the district average—and the fact that many students come from a challenging environment.
Getting the word out
Dwayne Truss, a community activist in Austin, says that he is doing everything he can to get the word out to schools about the draft guidelines and which campuses might be targeted. He also has spent time talking to local principals about how they can make the case for themselves that they can be spared.
Truss is the vice chairman of the Community Action Council in Austin, a group that spent the last year talking about what needs to happen to make schools better. The groups made presentations to CPS leaders earlier this fall, but have yet to hear word back from any officials about the status of their plans.
While some schools are gearing up for a fight, some are resigned to their fate. Lathrop has been being phased out for the past three years and now, according to some language in the draft guidelines, could face the death knell this year.
Melody Palmer, who went from a parent volunteer to a clerk at the school, says she will be sad if Lathrop closes its doors. The loss of subsidized housing in the area, coupled with the pressures of charter schools, siphoned away students. Of the 86 students left at the school, some 30 are homeless, she says.
But she says parents won’t get really upset until the final decision is made. “Then it will be too late,” she notes.