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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Despite opposition, CPS moves ahead on closings, turnarounds
Rejecting pleas from parents and grassroots activists not to move forward with school closings and turnarounds, School Board members unanimously approved actions that include a record 10 turnarounds in one year.
When the vote finally took place after 5:30 p.m.--seven hours since the meeting got underway—the small group of parents and activists still in the audience started chanting "rubber stamp." Jitu Brown, an education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and a Dyett local school member, booed. Dyett will be phased out next year.
Latrice Watkins, chairwoman of the Piccolo local school council, sat in a chair outside the board chambers and cried. "We did everything we could do," she said. "They will reap what they sow."
After the board meeting, school board member Mahalia Hines defended her action. In going out to public hearings, she said she was disturbed by the numbers of parents who seemed to be okay with schools whose low test scores only increased 5 percent over two or three years.
"It is not okay," she said. "Whether I was elected or appointed, I would have voted the same way."
School board member Jesse Ruiz added that he felt good that he had done "something, even if that something wasn't perfect" for students going to poor performing schools.
The following actions were approved:
- Crane and Dyett High Schools will begin phasing out next year, though Crane's building will house a charter school next year and a health and science academy in the fall of 2013. Chief Portfolio Officer Oliver Sicat said there were no plans to put another school into Dyett.
- Price and Guggenheim elementary schools will be closed.
- Chicago Vocational Career Academy and Tilden High will be turned around, as will eight elementary schools. Wendell Smith and Woodson South will be turned around by the CPS Office of School Improvement. Piccolo, Casals, Fuller, Stagg, Marquette and Herzl will be turned around by the Academy for Urban School Leadership. Chicago Vocational Career Academy will be allowed to keep its career programs, and a Montessori program at Stagg will still be available in the community either at Stagg or at another school four blocks away.
- In addition, the board approved measures that will allow several new schools or charter schools to share buildings with existing schools and will close three schools that were on their way to being phased out.
Activists look to legislature, courts
A few supporters of the plans also spoke during the three hours of public participation. Rebeca Nieves-Huffman, director of the Illinois chapter of Education Reform Now, worked at Piccolo years ago as a City Year corps member before a career working for national charter school advocacy organizations.
“I support the closure, I support the turnaround strategy because it appears to be working,” she said.
Another was Hibbard Elementary LSC member and parent Aureliano Vazquez. “These changes are going to be a benefit for all the students and will have a good result in the future,” he said through an interpreter.
But the vast majority of speakers denounced the plans and said their fight was not over.
Chicago Teachers Union spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin said the next step in the union’s fight would be “taking it to the courts” and to Springfield, in the form of bills that would halt school closings, consolidations and phase-outs. Proposed legislation already in Springfield calls for a moratorium.
Chicago Principals and Administrators Association President Clarice Berry also is taking part in lobbying on the bills’ behalf. “I’m concentrating my efforts on school closings in Springfield,” she said, rather than addressing the board meeting.
Jesse Jackson was one of a number of speakers who threatened that more lawsuits would be filed over the closing and turnaround dispute.
Jackson asked board members to put a moratorium on school actions until the board can study education equity in the system and he warned the board members that if they don't back off, he and other activists will “ask the General Assembly and court to come to our rescue.”
Another was Rev. Paul Jakes, president of the Christian Council on Urban Affairs, which he said represented over 100 churches.
“We certainly believe there has been a violation of our equal rights,” Jakes said, before asking CPS to help defray the cost of funerals for young people who are killed if the school closures and phase-outs contribute to gang violence. That has happened in the past, as students must travel through different neighborhoods to get to their new schools.
“It’s a moral issue,” Jakes said. “Those who are in positions such as this need to have sensitivity to lives being lost.”
After addressing the board, Jakes said he has met with several “top-30” civil rights attorneys such as Thomas Todd, Standish Willis, and Lawrence Kennon.
Many of the parents and teachers at schools slated for turnaround said they wanted their current principals to have more time to try to improve their schools. Before the meeting, demonstrators from Action Now picketed outside board headquarters and sang “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around, turn us around, turn us around. We’re going to keep on fighting, keep on marching. Education is a human right.”
Board members asked questions
CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said it is up to CPS officials to heal the communities following the vote.
Some of the people who spoke criticized the CPS leadership for failing to listen to them. Matt Farmer, a parent activist, pointed out that the hearing officers who listened to public comment at the turnaround hearings—and later endorsed the board’s plans—were lawyers with firms that work for CPS.
Board members asked several questions about safety and school culture.
“How will you monitor the safety plan?” board member Penny Pritzker asked. She said she would like to hear how the safety plans are being implemented.
CPS Chief of Safety and Security Jadine Chou said that the Safe Passage program, in which community members are paid to shepherd students home, will be utilized in the schools.
Ruiz said he pushed CPS officials and that now is the time for board members to support it. He said CPS officials need to harness the passion expressed by those who opposed the turnarounds.
Board member Andrea Zopp asked about whether AUSL expels more students. Some speakers said they worried about students who were pushed out of turnarounds. But Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley, who formerly worked for AUSL, says the children who were there before the turnaround are still there and enrollment is going up at many of schools. (However, CPS data shows that AUSL turnaround schools do issue an extraordinary number of misconducts.)
Katie Osgood, who teaches at an inpatient mental health facility that works with many former CPS students, complained that she sees students who were pushed out of turnaround and charter schools.
“Where I work, we don’t charge them $5. We don’t kick them out and tell them they don’t fit in there,” she said. “These kids need the most resources, but instead CPS gives them the least."
Even so, CTU President Karen Lewis pled with the board to change their minds.
“Children who need the most resources get the least. Parents who cry out the loudest get their voices drowned,” she said.