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CPS school utilization standard ‘flawed’

When CPS interim CEO Terry Mazany says there are 30 schools that could be closed due to “underutilization” – or when charter school advocates say there are 100 “underutilized” public schools that should be turned over to new charters – the utilization standard they’re relying on is virtually meaningless.

That’s one conclusion of a legislative task force on CPS school facilities planning that will release its final recommendations tomorrow (Friday, March 11, 9:30 a.m., Bilandic Building, 160 N. Michigan, Room 505.)

CPS measures building capacity by counting potential classroom spaces and multiplying by standard class sizes.  As has been noted before, this ignores a range of educational needs, from smaller classes for special education to art and music rooms and science and computer labs.

A more comprehensive standard accounts for a variety of educational programming as well as a couple multi-use rooms (cafeterias, auditoriums and/or gyms), and can be roughly expressed in terms of square feet per student, said Mary Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund in Washington, who’s advising the task force.

Based on national standards, CPS should aim at an average of 150 square feet per student – more for high schools, less for elementary schools, she said.  The nation’s best schools have as much as 200 square feet per student.  Systemwide, CPS has 96.

Absurd results

Applied to individual schools – particularly 224 schools CPS lists as utilizing less than 50 percent of capacity – the CPS standard can yield absurd results.  At full capacity as defined by CPS, Clark Elementary would have 51 square feet per student; Brown Academy would have 43 square feet per student, according to the task force.

Filardo points out that the least crowded schools – and those with the best facilities – are selective enrollment schools.

“CPS school utilization information is flawed, yet drives crucial decisions,” states a task force analysis.

Chaired by State Rep. Cynthia Soto and State Sen. Heather Steans, the task force includes representatives of CPS, Chicago Teachers Union, and community and educational groups.  It conducted extensive hearings, focus groups, and data analysis, finding that “there is no clear process or accountability for how decisions are made on school actions, school openings, and school capital investment and new construction strategies,” according to a prelimary report issued last month.

Other conclusions: there’s no meaningful process for parent and community input in decisions, and CPS does not follow its own policies on school closings.  The task force identified major inconsistencies and inequities in capital spending.

Its recommendations are expected to be reflected in legislation mandating a comprehensive, transparent and accountable facilities planning process for CPS.

Mazany seems to be responding to similar concerns, calling for a school facilities inventory and a moratorium on new charter schools due to a backlog of available buildings.

Where new schools go – and  how they impact enrollment at existing schools – is one issue that does not seem to be considered in current planning.  The question came up repeatedly in task force hearings, said Laurene Heybach of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.  “There’s a strong sense that Renaissance 2010 schools get better facilities and that they are recruiting away from neighborhood schools,” she said.

Who has clout

Renaissance 2010, with its goal of opening 100 new schools, set off a mad scramble for facilities that exacerbated CPS’s planning shortcomings.  Facilities decisions seemed to reflect not educational goals but “who had clout in a particular area,” said Nona Burney, who represents Grand Boulevard Federation on the task force.

An education professor at Roosevelt University, Burney is a former public school teacher and principal who served on a school facility planning board in Cleveland – which faced tough decisions about school closings — before coming to Chicago.

“I heard about Renaissance 2010 – and I know what it takes to create a school, and to close a school – and I could not believe the district wanted to create 100 schools at one time,” she recalls.  “And close 100 schools!”

Working with GBF in Bronzeville, she saw school closings proposed based on faulty enrollment data, low-income children moved around repeatedly, and homeless children moved without legally-mandated transitional support.

More recently, lack of coordination has led to top-down decisions ranging bordering on the absurd:  an vocational training program closed at Collins High School after millions of dollars were invested in new equipment; $100 million budgeted for a new building for Jones College Prep after $23 million was spent for improvements on its existing building; South Shore high school students attending a decrepit building across the street from a new facility, built for them but then set aside for a new selective enrollment school; and most recently, two small schools in Austin that were merged and “unmerged” in the space of a week.

Among the most moving testimony, task force members say, came from neighborhood schools which find themselves sharing facilities with charters, where the imbalance of resources is most stark.

At a South Side hearing last month, a special education teacher from Woodson Elementary, whose building now also hosts a campus of the University of Chicago Charter Schools, spoke out.

“I’m so upset with CPS and what they’re doing to our children,” she said.  “You go in next door, they have a brand-new lunchroom, their kids are walking around with laptops and all types of special programs, and we have nothing. What do they think they are doing to us?”

Heybach suggests that CPS leadership needs to hear these voices. “Whoever the next CEO is, that person ought visit every school and hear from the parents what we’re hearing,” she said.

“What an earful!  There’s a whole level of decision-making people at the board who don’t come to community meetings.  They ought to hear the anger.  There’s a lot of mistrust.”


See previous posts:

School closing numbers challenged

Bronzeville: Sudden school shift raises questions

School closings: There’s no plan

The Carpenter case

School closing impact report?

Pilsen charter move challenged

Soto bill enacted

School closing tricks in Bronzeville

City Council hearing: spotlight on school planning

A little sunshine at CPS

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Category: CPS, school closings, school facilities


2 Responses

  1. This is a great article, Curtis! I appreciate the work of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, bringing to light critical issues that have been swept under the rug for years.

  2. […] there’s the utilization standard that CPS uses, which is deeply flawed. If the new commission studying that issue were to come up with meaningful reforms, they would take […]

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