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School closings and broken promises

[UPDATE 2 – CPS has withdrawn its proposal to consolidate Beidler and Cather elementary schools.]

[UPDATE – CPS has withdrawn its proposal to consolidate Tilton and Marconi elementary schools.]

A long trail of broken promises, marked by discarded commitments and disingenuous communications, leads to the latest round of school closings proposed by CPS.

The big one – but just the first of many — is last year’s promise by CPS leadership to institute “a five-step process designed to allow more time for community and school input,” as Rosalind Rossi reported in the Sun Times.

Schools, parents, and elected officials would be consulted far in advance notice of any closure decisions, months prior to the usual January announcement, then-CPS chief Ron Huberman told aldermen.

Instead, CPS sharply reduced the timeframe for closures this year, pushing an announcement back to the middle of March.

“Promises made to us were totally ignored,” Ald. Fredrenna Lyle (6th Ward) told the Sun Times after the March 21 announcement.

It’s not the first time CPS leadership has agreed to fix the process and failed to follow through.

In 2007, then-CPS chief Arne Duncan asked State Representative Cynthia Soto to withdraw a bill that would mandate six months notice for school closings, along with guarantees for community involvement and transitional support for students. Duncan promised to work with Soto to address her concerns.

“That has not happened,” she told Newstips two years ago, announcing a new legislative effort. “They do not keep their word.”

Her new bill, passed unanimously in 2009, created the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force to study CPS planning and make recommendations to improve transparency and accountability.

‘Substantial outreach’

New district leadership has not been more forthright. Last month CPS interim chief Terry Mazany claimed community consultation was underway at schools where that does not seem to be the case.

At several schools which were already being phased out and are now proposed for consolidation, “substantial outreach has already taken place within those communities,” Mazany said in last month’s announcement.

“They announced [Carpenter Elementary’s consolidation into Talcott] in the newspapers,” said Carpenter teacher Lisa Dimberg at a hearing of the Soto task force last week. “That’s how we found out.” (She added that Carpenter has not forgotten “the blatant hijacking of our school” two years ago.)

Parents and teachers from several other schools echoed Dimberg’s complaint about the complete lack of communication, repeatedly charging the failure reflected “disrespect.”

In addition, earlier promises to Carpenter and Andersen – where parents were told their children could stay there to complete grade school – will be broken if the schools are shut down before the scheduled phase-out runs its course.

Marconi and Tilton were promised a community process to determine the future of the two schools last year, after CPS proposed consolidating the two schools and then withdrew the proposal. As Substance reported, CPS official Robert Runcie promised a “community-based task force” to “figure out a way to bring these two communities together.”

That never happened, according to LSC members at both schools. Now, with no notice to the schools, the consolidation is back on the table.

No Safe Passage

CPS also promised support for a Safe Passage program for children at the two schools, and Carmen Gibbs, a community activist and Marconi parent, said she repeatedly called downtown to follow up. “They’ve never returned my calls,” she said.

CPS will “promise you things to get you off their backs, and when things quiet down they just disappear again,” said Carol Johnson, an organizer at Bethel New Life who has worked with parents at Marconi and Tilton.

Safety is a major concern at the two schools (and the schools’ students “do have a history of fighting,” as one parent testified last week). Gibbs suggested that decision-makers walk the route they’ll be requiring students to take, past gang and drug activity.

“You wouldn’t want your children to walk through what they’re going to be walking through,” she said.

Some Tilton students will have a very long walk to Laura Ward Elementary under new proposed attendance boundaries, Gibbs said.

“Some kids can’t cross Kostner,” said Latia Jordan of Tilton’s LSC. “Some older brothers and sisters won’t be able to take the younger kids to school.”

Jordan is also worried about co-sharing the facility with the Chicago Talent Development Charter High School while Tilton is phased out. Chicago Talent was housed at Tilton briefly before moving to its current location, and “it didn’t work,” she said. “The high school kids bullied the grammar school kids. It was out of control – a complete zoo.”

Those are the kinds of issues the promised planning process – or the promised Safe Passage program — might have helped address.

Overcrowding

An honest assessment would require CPS to use an honest standard for utilizing school capacity. The Soto task force cited “grave concerns,” including CPS utilization standards that are “misleading,” before voting last week to call on Mazany to stop the consolidations.

It turns out that Marconi will be seriously overcrowded if Tilton’s student body is sent there, with somewhere between 80 and 100 square feet per child – far below the task force’s recommendation, based on national studies, of an “educationally appropriate” standard of 135 square feet per child.

“They need to stop trying to pile kids on top of each other with 30 kids in a classroom,” commented Jordan. “It’s not about the kids, it’s not about the data, it’s about the building.”

In recent years Tilton has gotten new elevators, a science lab, a computer lab and a library, Gibbs said. What’s Marconi gotten? “Nothing,” she said. “They put a little fence around the little playground. That was it.”

Cather Elementary will also face severe overcrowding – about 80 square feet per student – if Beidler’s student body is sent there. And again, the reasons given for the consolidation are seen as a cover for a facility grab.

At last week’s task force hearing, Beidler LSC president Bettye Sherrod described a feeling of personal betrayal after she gave Mazany a tour of the school.

“Our school is so beautiful – we have lab rooms, computer rooms, art and music rooms,” she said. “We went out and got those things ourselves.” Mazany “slinked in to look our school over” and when he saw how well equipped it was, he “decided to turn it over to a charter,” she said.

Ald. Walter Burnett (29th Ward) is feeling burned, too. The Sun Times reports that he’s “furious” that CPS was handing the Beidler building over to a charter (“to kids who don’t even live in the ward”) just as construction begins on a $2.2 million campus park which he has pushed for years – and for which he helped provide TIF funding.

For homeless students, ‘disaster’

Increasingly, CPS is also failing to meet commitments to protect homeless children in school closings. After the Renaissance 2010 plan was launched in 2004, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Law Project charged that the plan’s school closings violated the 1996 settlement in Salazar v. Edwards, which promised homeless students that they could remain in their schools.

In response CPS promised additional support for homeless students when their schools were closed, including individual meetings with parents, with a list of good school options and individual plans to address students’ specific needs and ensure smooth transitions. Last year, following drastic cuts in staff assisting homeless students, CPS fell short, said Laurene Heybach of the CCH Law Project, a task force member.

“Last year was an utter disaster,” she said. “This year they’re not doing anything differently. The parents will again be confused. [CPS is] refusing to conduct individual meetings.” She calls it “the incredible shrinking agreement.”

“For some reason CPS does not seem to care about the total breach of trust with the people they’re supposed to serve,” she said. “It’s broken, broken, broken.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. The Soto task force has recommended long-range facilities planning with public oversight – and a six-month process of informing and consulting school communities about possible closings.

The recommendations (pdf) – parts of which CPS has repeatedly promised to implement — are expected to form the basis of legislation reforming CPS facilities planning to be introduced in the state legislature’s current session.

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Category: CPS, Garfield Park, school closings, school facilities

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2 Responses

  1. Maureen says:

    Excellent reporting of a serious problem. Please help us follow the legislation in Springfield.

  2. Marcia Rothenberg says:

    Good article. Important information concerning hardships caused parents,danger to students, abandoning the homeless kids, duplicity of CPS, favoring of charter schools. Can’t you get this out into the mass media? These points should be widely circulated.


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