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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50 school closings approved at raucous board meeting
Now that CPS board members have approved the closing of 50 elementary schools, 11 co-locations and five turnarounds, the district is about to undertake a massive effort to get displaced students to enroll in a new school before May 31.
CPS named “welcoming schools” for each of those that will close in the massive shakeup this fall. But in a district that offers an increasing number of school choices for parents, officials want to get a handle on just where students will end up on Aug. 26, the first day of school. In the past, only about half of displaced students attended the school CPS officials designated as welcoming.
About 46,000 students are affected by the actions approved at Wednesday's raucous meeting, marking the biggest restructuring in the district's history and the most schools ever closed at a single time in the nation. Weeks of protests by the Chicago Teachers Union, parents and community activists failed to sway the board or the district, beyond the last-minute decision to remove a handful of schools from the target list. Dozens of attendees were escorted out of board chambers for disrupting the meeting.
With these actions, the number of neighborhood elementary schools will fall to 344, down from nearly 400 a decade ago.
Getting a handle on where students will be in school this fall is of the upmost importance. School budgets are based on enrollment projections and, if fewer students show up than projected, the school will lose teachers. Conversely, if more students show up, classes can left without permanent teachers for weeks.
CPS officials appear to be waiting to get a handle on how enrollment will shake out under the school actions before giving schools their budgets, which are usually given to schools earlier in the spring.
Darlene Williams, who has two children and a niece and nephew at Paderewski, said she thinks that fewer than 15 percent of students from that school will go to the two designated welcoming schools. The receiving schools are mostly Latino, but Paderewski is mostly black and many of its students might end up at Crown, which is also predominantly African American.
With the votes cast, Brennemann Principal Sarah Abedelal said she and her staff will be at Stewart Elementary on Thursday afternoon handing out flyers to try to get students to enroll in her school. She is hoping that 170, or about 70 percent, of Stewart’s students enroll in Brennemann.
“If we don’t get the students, it will be a budget nightmare,” she said.
Abedelal said she didn’t want to do any overt selling of her school until after the votes were cast.
Some last-minute maneuvering did occur. Before the vote, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett recommended that board members vote no on four closures--Manierre, Mahalia Jackson, Garvey and Ericson--and one school, Barton from the turnaround list.
On the remaining 50 schools, only one vote was not unanimous, with board members Carlos Azcoitia and Jesse Ruiz opposing the closure of Von Humboldt.
Taking pains to explain their actions, board members said they made a point of having at least one member visit each targeted school. Board President David Vitale said he and other members walked past vacant lots, saw floors devoid of students and classrooms used as storage.
“We have tried to understand school by school what this would mean,” he said.
In the end, board members said they voted in favor of the closings because they believed the rationale, often repeated by the district, that closing under-used buildings would allow them to focus limited resources on a smaller number of schools. As part of the action, 17 of the welcoming schools will become speciality schools, offering International Baccalaureate, STEM--science, technology, engineering and math--or fine arts programs. The welcoming schools will also get extra resources such as iPads, as well as upgraded facilities--air conditioning, science labs and libraries.
Azcoitia said the extra resources were the reason he voted for the actions; otherwise he would have voted no.
"If resources are not abundant, then this is what we need to do," he said.
Board member Henry Bienen said that people who question whether closing schools will save money don’t understand economics. District officials have lowered their initial savings estimates.
“There are short-term costs of relocation, but fairly immediately we will see savings in not heating schools, not turning on the lights,” he said.
Bryd -Bennett also took time to defend her position. She reiterated that CPS has lost significant enrollment over the past decade and that has left some schools without many students and "tens of thousands trapped in under-utilized schools and under-resourced schools," sometimes in split-grade classes and without access to current technology.
She said the blame rests with CPS for not making hard decisions previously, "Like it or not, our schools do have to change," she said.
As she talked, attendees disrupted the board meeting saying "Children will die because of CPS lies."
A Chicago police officer told board members that the department looked at things like lights along the way, the condition of buildings and other issues. He said Chicago police see the closings as an opportunity to bring together communities that have not previously gotten along.
"They will learn and play together," he said.
But at least 100 parents and activists came to the board meeting to let members know how much they disliked the proposals.
As Erika Clark recited the entire long list of schools proposed for closure and declared that they were “my school,” the microphone shut off, signaling that she had exhausted her two minutes of allotted speech time.
Clark then sat down near the podium and was carried out by white-coated CPS security men. Clark staged one of several actions at the meeting and was one of the dozens of people forcefully removed while chanting or yelling.
The meeting started with a parade of aldermen asking board members to protect their schools. Ald. Latasha Thomas said she came to ask board members to step back and listen to what parents are asking for.
"Make sure you are not using a saw when you should be using a scaffold," Thomas said.
Ald. Walter Burnett reminded the board that the city has a high homicide rate, and said it is disingenuous for the board to say a school is underutilized while opening new charter schools. LEARN Charter School is across from Calhoun, which will close. Rather than open charter schools, Burnett suggested schools be rebranded.
The public participation part of the meeting ended with a parent from Overton saying the fight won’t be over. "On the first day of school next year, we will be there," she said.
The last speaker led the group in a prayer. “There is a right, there is a wrong, there is a just and an injustice,” said the woman who was there to oppose the closing of Morgan.