Researchers studying the recently-announced closing and consolidation of CPS schools say their evidence confirms the concerns of parents and community groups that school enrollment levels are not being appropriately analyzed, with special education and housing issues among those left out of the picture.
Data on schools, housing, and development is being used by researchers in the College of Education and the College of Urban Planning at UIC to study the intersection of policy agendas, said Pauline Lipman of UIC’s Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education .
The project builds on databases covering CPS capital spending and TIF investments maintained by the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group and acquired by UIC after the watchdog group folded in early 2007.
A forthcoming report includes case studies of Andersen and Abbott schools, Lipman said.
Based on low enrollment numbers, CPS plans to “phase out” Andersen (1148 N. Honore) and consolidate Abbott (3630 S. Wells) with another school. Parents and community supporters have opposed the plans.
Andersen parent leader Carmen Soto said busloads of Andersen parents, teachers, and students will attend a hearing on the plan tonight, Friday, February 15, at 7 p.m. at CPS board chambers, 125 S. Clark, 5th floor.
She said the designation of Andersen as underutilized “doesn’t take into account that we have a lot of special ed programs.” Eight classrooms are dedicated to special education, including two for children with autism and one for children with developmental delays. Two more classrooms are used as “pullout rooms” to provide additional help to kids in regular classes.
“CPS uses a gross calculation based on square footage,” said Lipman, but measuring “educationally appropriate enrollment” requires looking at how rooms are used. She cites Andersen staff calculations which take into account limits on class size for special education programs and put Andersen at 58 percent utilization — well above the cutoff line for closing schools — not the 47 percent stated by CPS chief Arne Duncan in a letter to parents.
“Their criteria for space utilization do not take into account legal requirements which limit the number of kids in each special ed class,” said Rod Estvan, a special education advocate with Access Living . Access Living is opposing the closing of Andersen, Estvan said.
Estvan said achievement levels for children with disabilities at Andersen are above average for the city. He asks, “Where will these kids go?” He adds that several other schools listed as under-enrolled have sizable programs for children with disabilities.
“You can’t put 30 autistic kids in a classroom,” said Don Moore of Designs for Change ; the legal limit for these class sizes is seven. “Andersen’s being discriminated against because it has that many special ed students, and that’s just not fair.”
“A child without disabilities falls behind six months when there’s a move,” said Soto. “It’s much harder for a child with disabilities; they have to get used to the building, the program, the teachers. This is security and continuity for them.”
Jose Alvarez of CPS Office of LSC Relations  says there are simply not enough elementary-age children within Andersen’s boundaries to sustain a neighborhood school. CPS plans to use the building for a magnet school modeled on Lincoln Park’s LaSalle Language Academy.
Lipman points out that 130 of Andersen’s students are bused from Lyon Elementary in Belmont-Cragin, which a few years ago was at 111 percent of its capacity.
Last year Andersen won an Exemplary Achievement Award after they raised test scores 20 percent over three years; last year over 64 percent of its students met or exceeded state standards. The school has a World Language program, has partnered with Verizon and the Museum of Science and Industry, and has asked without success for additional programming. “CPS hasn’t helped us with anything,” according to Soto.
Moore views Andersen as an example of a type of school which his research (pdf ) has shown has carried out sustained improvement — “a neighborhood school with an elected LSC, strong leadership, committed teachers, and community support.” Most such schools have seen risen steadily achievement levels, while schools subjected to central administration control haven’t.
Soto points out that the school’s student body is 90 percent low-income, while the area is gentrifying rapidly. She’s a third generation Anderson parent; both she and her mother graduated from the school, and she now has a daughter in the first grade and a son who will be ready for pre-school next year. “I honestly believe they want to push the low-income people out, and LaSalle can come in and attract families with more money.” She doesn’t see why Andersen shouldn’t be given the resources to do the same.
“They’re just thinking about numbers,” she said. “They’re not thinking about people.”
Abbott’s enrollment has dropped as the CHA’s Wentworth Gardens development was emptied for rehab, but CPS’s figure of 9 percent utilization is meaningless, said Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization . It doesn’t take into account two additional users of the building, the Choir Academy Charter School and the Near South Child Development Center operated by Easter Seals.
“They’re being dishonest,” Brown said. “The building is not underutilized. The building is full.”
“In actuality, the building is not as underutilized as CPS seems to think,” said Rita Washington, manager of the Easter Seals center at Abbott, which also faces closing. “It’s pretty crowded, really.”
Now families are moving back into the refurbished Wentworth Gardens, with half of the remaining 348 units yet to be filled.
Alvarez said that the Choir Academy was only there temporarily until it finds its own building, and that CHA officials told CPS there would not be enough children in the area to fill the building.
Brown points out that test scores at Abbott have climbed steadily; last year 58.6 percent of students met or exceeded expectations, just below the citywide average. And Abbott’s scores are higher than those for Graham School in Canaryville, where CPS proposes to send Abbott students.
“Why are you closing a school that could serve as a model for other urban schools, if your goal is school improvement?” he asks. “Abbott is a solid neighborhood school.”
The trip to Canaryville raises safety issues — not only does the two-mile trek cross gang boundaries, but the mostly white neighborhood has been scene of racially-motivated attacks against blacks — and students bused there would lose access to after school programs.
“Every community deserves a neighborhood school,” said Brown. The closing “further destabilizes a community that is already struggling.”
Closing the Near South Center “would have a devastating effect on the community,” said Washington. “We’re the only infant toddler center in the surrounding area.” They offer full-day child care for children from six weeks to five years, including Early Head Start, Head Start, and State Pre-K, with support for special needs children.
The “real focus” of the Center is to feed kids into the elementary school, she said.
“They’re undermining the return of people to this community,” said Lipman, pointing out that joint tenancies and other creative solutions are common in school system where schools are favored.
The backroom process by which CPS chooses schools to close makes its decisions seem arbitrary at best. Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education  points out that one of the schools slated for closing is Midway Academy, 5434 S. Lockwood, which was built two years ago to alleviate school overcrowding on the Southwest Side — overcrowding which still exists. “How ridiculous is that?” she asks.
Emphasizing the educational disruption for students caused by school closings, PURE has called  for “a transparent, responsible long-term capital plan” and questioned the disproportionate amount of capital funds going to Renaissance 2010 schools. Before it closed in 2007, NCBG was calling  for a facility master plan and a mandate for school closing impact and alternative studies which would include LSCs from proposed closing and receiving schools.
“Education for low-income African American and Latino children is being flushed down the toilet,” Brown said. “These policies don’t have kids’ best interests at heart.”
Though no one doubts the Board of Education will unanimously approve the school closing plan at its February 27 meeting, school supporters will be there in force.