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Engaging communities and counting classrooms

If the “community engagement” hearings recently held by CPS were intended to rebuild broken trust, as Barbara Byrd-Bennett has said, they might be counted as the first failure of a long season.

“Up until a couple weeks ago, I  believed what CPS said about utilization and a budget shortfall, and that they had to close schools,” said parent Beth Herring at a recent meeting of Hyde Park parents and teachers.

Then she went to a community hearing.

“It is not community engagement to invite people to come and beg to keep their schools open,” she said.   “Maybe some schools need to be closed, but there has to be a much more serious process, not just giving people two minutes to literally beg to keep their schools open.”

At a West Side hearing last week, an alderman put it more directly:

“This process is insane,” said Ald. Jason Ervin (29th).  “It pit schools against one another, it pits communities against one another.  This is no way to run a school system.”

***

This weekend, the Grassroots Education Movement and the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force are offering two alternative forums for school issues.  Perhaps CPS and the school board could learn something about open and respectful communications from them.

Point one might be holding meetings at times when working parents and teachers can attend them — apparently not the goal of school board, which postponed its March 27 meeting because it was during spring break.

On Friday, March 8, 6 p.m., GEM is holding a People’s Board Meeting at the First Unitarian Church, 5650 S. Woodlawn.  Parents and teachers from across the city will be speaking on school closings and other issues that CPS doesn’t address, like smaller class sizes, charter expansions, and an elected school board.

GEM is a community-labor coalition; the meeting is envisioned as the first of an ongoing series.  Elected officials have been invited.

On Saturday, March 9, 10 a.m., CEFTF holds its monthly Second Saturday session at the Humboldt Park Library, 1605 N. Troy, focused on the ten-year facilities master plan, another subject CPS isn’t discussing.  The district is required to produce a draft by May 1.

CEFTF, a task force of the state legislature, is asking schools to report on whether CPS has engaged them in the planning process, and the task force is soliciting the kind of fine-grained information about school use that CPS’s utilization standard completely ignores.

***

That’s one of the problems at the dozens of community hearings on school closings in recent weeks, where thousands of parents and teachers have turned out and make eloquent and emotional pleas for their schools.

CPS and the people in its schools are using different utilization standards.

Representatives from school after school have challenged the way CPS has rated their building’s utilization.  Often this involves listing classrooms that are used for special programs.

In many cases, principals and LSCs have done a great job bringing in community partners, outside agencies that offer the kind of crucial programming, from art and music enrichment to counseling and everything in between, that CPS has been unable to provide sufficiently to satisfy parents.

In many cases, they also point to CPS’s failure to take into account legal class size limits for special education classes.

One example of many: DNAinfo reports that at a Fuller Park hearing, Dewey Elementary principal Eric Dockery “said CPS labeled his school as 53 percent utilized. But Dockery has his own calculation, one that considers capacity for special education and pre-kindergarten rooms as well as the school’s emphasis on small class sizes and spaces for unique programs.

“Taken together, he said, that puts the school at 85 percent utilized. Dockery said he submitted that information to CPS and ‘hopefully I will hear back.'”

(Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together, a member of CEFTF, says she’s heard from several principals who reported utilization discrepancies to CPS and haven’t heard back.  I asked CPS about the protocol for schools to challenge their utilization standards.  I haven’t heard back.)

***

The schools are actually arguing for a more accurate utilization standard.  While CPS bases its utilization standards purely on building capacity, schools are looking at their utilization based on program capacity.

It turns out that’s what the experts recommend.  It also turns out that using program capacity as a standard, more schools would be fully utilized and fewer seats would be “empty.”

Rather than just adding up classrooms and dividing by the number of students, this involves looking at how classrooms are used.   It’s much closer to what other cities use (we’ve linked to New York’s approach here).

In Seattle they use “functional capacity,” which (as cited by a report from the Broad Foundation, where Byrd-Bennett is a paid consultant) is “determined by a walk of each facility.” That’s something CPS doesn’t do.

“Functional capacity is defined as the target number of students per school based on each school’s particular programs.  This is different from planning capacity, which is a formula designed to identify a high-level average possible enrollment for each building.

“Both numbers are important: planning capacity provides a blueprint that can be used district-wide; functional capacity provides an on-the-ground number that is specific to a particular school at a particular time given the needs of its students.”

A report from BrainSpaces, an international educational design firm based in Chicago, for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International spells out different levels of capacity measurement, ranging from maximum capacity (the number of kids you can cram in a building) to building capacity (which also considers support facilities, from hallways to lunchrooms), to functional capacity (which factors in schedule flexibility) to program capacity, which includes program offerings.

The report recommends that while building capacity should guide district-level planning, school-level decisions should be guided by program capacity.

“Most people think capacity is a mathematical formula,” said Amy Yurko, BrainSpaces founder and chair of the American Institute of Architects’ curriculum design committee.  But when you’re dealing with education, the intangibles are critical, including the role of a school in its neighborhood, she said.  “Formulas are comfortable and safe but they’re not accurate.”

Here’s the thing: as you move from the broader to the finer-grained standards, the numbers change.  If you look at program capacity, your capacity will be smaller — and your utilization rate will be higher — than you get looking at building capacity.

The BrainSpaces report gives illustrative numbers for each type of capacity measure.  They’re not based on an actual school, but they give the idea: a school with a maximum capacity of 400 could have a functional capacity of 300 and a program capacity of 240.  The actual numbers will depend on the needs of students and the programs offered to support them, Yurko said.

***

So when CPS says schools are underutilized and the schools themselves say they aren’t, they’re both right — they’re just using different standards.  And the schools are using the standard that’s recommended by experts throughout the field for measuring utilization at the school level.

And CPS is using a utilization standard that gives them a larger number of underutilized schools.

As the Tribune reports, CPS is also goosing its underutilization numbers by using an “ideal” class size that is far higher than class sizes outside Chicago, and in fact significantly higher than actual class sizes in Chicago.

You’d almost think the standard was set in order to maximize the number of schools that could be subject to closing.  (And it’s a fairly new standard, as Rod Estvan points out — CPS used to consider any classroom which had teaching and learning going on to be “utilized.”)

***

That’s what’s so incredibly curious about the final report of the School Utilization Commission, released Wednesday.  It’s headline recommendation — CPS can close 80 schools — is based on building capacity numbers.  But within the report, the commission repeatedly makes the case for using program capacity.

“Regarding the utilization formula, we conclude most importantly that it should never be used exclusively to decide which schools should be shuttered. Rather, it should be used as a starting point to decide where to look further.

“We found that factors such as annex space, students with disabilities and their needs, pre-Kindergarten classrooms, community-based health centers, and Head Start placements were critical to understanding how a school is used, and what its utilization rate should be.

“Most importantly, knowing the details of how a school is used and the needs of its students [is] critical for deciding what action, if any, to take.”

***

In one regard the CPS utilization formula fails on its own terms, since it’s supposed to reflect how resources flow into a school.  The formula simply ignores class size limits which determine how many special education teachers are allotted to a school.

Disability rights organization Access Living has consistently objected to CPS utilization standards, which “disregard legal limitations on class sizes in rooms designated for disabled children,” according to advocate Rod Estvan.

That shortcoming has several ramifications. It leads principals of neighborhood schools to be reluctant to accept special ed programs which could reduce their utilization rate, Estvan said.  (Another factor in their reluctance is that some of the cost of special ed programs must be borne by school budgets rather than the district.)

In addition, CPS’s policy of assuming the 25 percent allowance of classrooms for “ancillary uses” is sufficient to meet special ed needs creates an incentive to put self-contained classrooms in substandard rooms, he said.  Access Living has found self-contained classrooms placed in windowless basement rooms that are clearly inappropriate, he said.

Ignoring legal requirements also has the effect of reducing utilization rates in schools with larger special education populations.  Not surprisingly, a third of the schools listed as potential targets for closing in January were special ed cluster sites, providing specialized services that attract students from outside the school’s boundaries.  According to Catalyst, half of all schools with cluster programs were on the list.

Margie Wakelin of Equip for Equality told Catalyst that advocates are concerned the school closings could have a disparate impact on students with disabilities.

***

Asked by Raise Your Hand in January about the how CPS was factoring special ed into utilization rates and decisions about school closings, Byrd Bennett said CPS is “working with principals of underutilized schools to ensure that we understand any unique situations.”

That’s not good enough for Estvan — who points out that CPS already knows where all its special ed programs are located.

“It’s not a matter of ‘working with principals,’ it’s a matter of a fair calculation,” he said.

“CPS needs to do a complete functional survey of every school in order to get a reasonable estimate of utilization,” he said.  “They need to look at the function of each room.”

Estvan sharply criticized the utilization commission for inaccuracies in its interim report over how special ed classrooms are regulated.  The commission seems to have taken it somewhat to heart — and again, seems to agree that building capacity is an insufficient measure and program capacity is required:

“Given the large number of students needing specialized services and the complexity of accommodating every need appropriately, no simple formula will suffice,” according to the commission’s final report.  “Rather, CPS should look closely at each school and the needs of all its students.”

***

CPS should not be closing schools until it has an accurate measure of their capacity and utilization.  And currently it doesn’t have that.

That would require measuring program capacity, not just building capacity.

That’s one reason the school board should wait before making any decisions about closing schools.  Another is that a draft master plan is due May 1 and a final plan in October, and it makes no sense to make such huge decisions without that in place.

It’s not just for the big picture, either.  There are lots of pieces in motion right now.

Estvan argues that the system for distributing special ed cluster sites, established decades ago, needs to be entirely revamped — along with the system for funding special ed, so the district takes the burden off individual schools.

At the same time, CPS is completely redistributing its preschool programs, and 90 percent of the schools on the closing list were preschool sites, Catalyst has reported.

A complaint recently filed with the Illinois State Board of Education by Health and Disability Advocates charges CPS with failing to meet its legal mandate to evaluate thousands of children with disabilities and provide them special education preschool programs.  CPS has promised to do better — which will add to utilization.

And last week Mayor Emanuel announced he was instituting full-day kindergarten throughout the city.  That will affect utilization in hard-to-predict ways in the 25 percent of CPS schools that have half-day or no kindergarten programs.

According to a CPS teacher who blogs at CPS Chatter, all-day kindergarten at her school means the school will lose four classrooms, likely including the music room and art room, and possible driving class sizes up as high as 38.

***

If the timing of this decision were being driven by what’s best for the children and the schools — rather than the timing of the next mayoral election — there would be lots of reasons to step back and get things right.

And once again, the utilization commission wants to have it both ways, noting that “a variety of stakeholders — including communities, the CTU, newspapers, parents, families, academics, and others — who argue that CPS should delay closings for a year or more, using the extra time to do more planning and more community engagement.

“In a perfect world, CPS would have a district-wide master plan that included a detailed look at necessary capital investments before it tried to take on school closures, and would indeed take time to plan every detail of a school action.”

It doesn’t explain why that’s not advisable.

It also calls for considering anticipated demographic changes, noting that the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning predicts the Chicago area will grow by more than two million people by 2040.

“The utilization formula is a snapshot, and doesn’t account for demographic change over time.  While the majority of schools are in neighborhoods where populations are decreasing, it will be important to look on a block-by-block basis to identify potential changes that might alter the demographics of a school.

“In particular, we encourage CPS to work closely with the CHA and city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development to identify developments or other investments that might overwhelm what is currently a well-utilized school, or move an underutilized school into efficient areas.”

Funny, that kind of intergovernmental consultation is just what’s mandated by the state legislation requiring the facility plan.  And it doesn’t seem like something that can be done in a few weeks.

***

CPS says it must move in order to more focus classroom resources more effectively.  It’s not clear what that means, however.

It probably means larger class sizes in the low-income communities where the closings are targeted — and where small class sizes are considered particularly valuable.

It could mean two schools with half-time art teachers become one school with a full-time art teacher, but no art room.  The art teacher takes a cart from room to room — art on a cart, it’s called.

“I would think you’d want to have a sink handy if you’re doing art,” said Yurko.  “Or you can dumb down the programming because you don’t have the capacity to teach painting.”

 

Related:

Fuzzy math: the CPS budget crisis

The charter contradiction

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Category: CPS, school closings, school facilities

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