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Better schools?

CPS claims  this year — as it has in past closings — that all students in closing schools will end up at better schools.

The gym of Attucks Elementary's first building, closed in 2008; its current location is now proposed for closing (photo by Nathan Goldbaum, CTU)

A recent view of the gym of Attucks Elementary’s first building, closed in 2008; its current location is now proposed for phaseout (photo by Nathan Goldbaum, CTU)

As the Sun-Times and Tribune both report, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  According to the Trib, whose analysis included several schools for which the Sun-Times couldn’t find data, nearly half of closing schools will send their students to schools with the same performance rating.

By my count, at 28 closing schools — more than half of the 53 on the list — students will be transferred to schools that are on academic probation.

The Sun-Times points out that eight receiving schools actually have lower test scores than the schools they’re absorbing students from.  (This includes four receiving schools that have higher performance ratings but lower ISAT composite scores than the sending schools, which tells you something about CPS’s performance policy; Matt Farmer tells you more here.)

In many cases, the “better school” claim is a shell game.  That’s where you see one school “closing” and another school with better scores moving out of its own building and into the “closed” school.

‘The numbers don’t work’

So, on the North Side, Stockton, a Level-3 school (on probation), is “closing” and its students are “moving into” Courtenay, a Level-2 (“in good standing”) school.  But they’ll stay the same building. The Courtenay building is closing, and its students and staff will be sent to the old Stockton building.

Courtenay is now a small school that takes students who apply from across the city.  No longer.  Courtenay will now take on Stockton’s attendance boundaries.

With about 250 Courtenay students joining Stockton’s 450 students, what this really means is that Courtenay is closing but its administrators are being shifted to Stockton, along with its name.  But with much less space.

Both schools have huge special ed populations — Courtenay’s is 33 percent, Stockton’s is 30 percent — and both have large ELL student populations, which have their own, less stringent legal class size limits. So they really don’t have as much room as CPS thinks they do, since the district’s calculations ignore special ed and ELL space requirements.

“Stockton has four or five empty rooms,” said Wendy Katten of Raise Your Hand, who’s visited many of the closing schools (and found much detail that’s lost in CPS’s decision-making process).  “But they’re getting what — ten new homerooms?  And both schools have huge special ed populations, which CPS is still not factoring in.”

So class sizes will go up, even as two distinct student populations with special needs are merged.

It looks like, rather than liberating students who are “trapped in failing schools,” Emanuel and company are setting up yet another school for failure.

“Mass closings will lead to overcrowding and bigger class sizes,” according to Raise Your Hand.  “The numbers don’t work.

“Some receiving schools have told us they have no idea how 300 to 400 kids will fit in their building without class size going up to 40 or higher.

“Is this how we create better education for Chicago’s children?”

As Farmer recently pointed out, CPS schools are deemed underutilized if they have class sizes below 24 — and deemed “efficient” with class sizes up to 36 — but Emanuel’s children attend a private school where class sizes are capped at 23.

“It’s one thing to push class-size ‘efficiencies’ …on other people’s kids,” Farmer writes, “but don’t look for the mayor to urge those ‘reforms’ upon the folks at [the Lab School] anytime soon.”

Destabilizing schools in Bronzeville

In 2007, UIC researchers looked at the impact of school closings on receiving schools in Bronzeville.  By then, twelve schools had been closed in five years, many replaced by charters.  (Since then, seven more have been closed, with another five slated for closing this year.)

The Collaborative for Educational Justice and Equality at UIC’s College of Education found that the influx of new students disrupted school climate and slowed the pace of instruction.

Larger class sizes made all the issues more difficult to address, CEJE reported.

Administrators told CEJE their schools were forced to shift focus from academics to discipine.  There were more fights, lower achievement, increased truancy.  In 2006, a spate of newspaper articles highlighted escalating violence in schools receiving displaced students.

Teachers had to “back-track” to catch new students up.  Many continued to fall behind.  The new kids had trouble fitting in, had trouble concentrating, and were more disruptive, teachers said.

“You end up destabilizing the culture and ultimately the progress of each school,” said Rod Wilson, a community organizer with the Lugenia Burns Hope Center. Some of the best schools in the neighborhood never recovered, he told Newstips.

Fuller Elementary was a rising school when students from Donoghue were sent there in 2003, Wilson said. Achievement gains were reversed, and after five years on probation, the school was subjected to a “turnaround” last year.  Results from the latest intervention are not in yet.

Beethoven Elementary was one of 100 substantially-improved schools in a 1997 Designs For Change study that argued that local control was the best route for school improvement.  The school featured a Great Books program funded by the Annenberg Challenge.

In 2006, Beethoven took in students from Farren Elementary.  Now it’s in its third year on probation — and set to receive students from Attucks.

(Attucks is being phased out of a building it moved into in 2008, because repairs on its existing building were deemed too expensive — especially with CPS spending $6 million that summer for renovations to house a charter in a nearby school building — one that had been closed four years earlier because repairs there were deemed too expensive.)

“If you transfer a student from a low-income, highly segregated neighborhood school to another low-income, highly segregated school, it’s not the magic bullet that’s going to produce instant increases in academic performance,” Stephanie Farmer of CReATE told the Sun-Times.

Doubling down on segregation

CReATE cites a national study that found that school closings across the country have led to increased dropout rates and increased school violence, as disrupted relationships with adults and peers left students with fewer social and emotional supports to help them adjust to new schools.

While most closing and receiving schools in the CPS plan are low-income and racially isolated, Manierre stands out (as WBEZ has noted) because it’s surrounded by schools that are higher-performing and far more economically and socially diverse.

But its students are being sent to Jenner, which like Manierre is a Level-3 school that’s 95 percent low-income and 98 percent African American, and where the proportion of students meeting and exceeding state standards is in fact slightly lower than at Manierre.

Schools near Manierre include Newberry Math and Science, a Level-1 school with a 56 percent low-income, racially-mixed student body and, by CPS’s calculation, about 100 “empty seats”; Ogden International, a Level-1 school that’s 21 percent low-income and has an extra 100 spaces.

Also nearby is Skinner North, another top-level school with only 20 percent low-income students — and a utilization rate that’s actually lower than Manierre’s or Jenner’s.  According to CPS, Skinner North is 38 percent utilized, with 400 “empty seats.”

Instead, 394 Manierre students are going to Jenner, which has 377 “empty seats” by CPS’s calculation.  Because CPS utilization standards are so parsimonious, that looks like a recipe for overcrowding.

Rather than send Manierre students to higher-performing, racially-diverse schools, CPS is choosing to double down on segregation.


CPS is bringing in an International Baccalureate program to Jenner and six other receiving schools, along with STEM programs at eleven receiving schools.

For some this is reminscent of the Fine Arts Academies and Math and Science Academies that were rolled out with such fanfare under Arne Duncan.

The new programs will require ongoing teacher training and resources, warns Lorraine Forte at Catalyst, if they are not to “end up as nothing more than public relations ‘spin’ to sell closings as a sound educational idea.”

“I like the IB curriculum — it’s geared toward creativity and cricial thinking and not just test prep,” comments blogger and retired education professor Mike Klonsky.  “I think all students should be getting something like that.”

This may not be the most cost-effective way to get it, though, since it involves paying tens of thousands of dollars to the IB organization by each school, for certification, curricula and tests, training and evaluation.  CPS has budgeted $15 million to bring the IB program to seven schools, including new labs.  That’s the same amount being spent to expand full-day kindergarten to all elementary schools.

The new programs are part of a major effort by CPS — involving air conditioning, libraries, labs, playgrounds, and iPads — to depict the school closings as an effort to focus resources, rather than an effort to clear the way for the charter expansion that Emanuel and CPS plan.

One problem, as the Sun-Times points out, is that many of the schools that are being closed already have the features now being promised for receiving schools.  Their example is Garvey, which already has the the air-conditioning, computer lab, and pre-school now being promised at receiving schools.  Garvey, which CPS wants to close, also has higher test scores than its receiving school.

In some cases CPS doesn’t seem to know what’s available in the schools it wants to board up.  It lists “no computer lab” at Henson in its explaining of why the school has been chosen for closing.

In fact, Henson has 16 computers in its library and a technology lab in the room next door, said Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance.  “It has computers in every classroom, and technology integrated in every class.

“I don’t know if [CPS is] just out of touch, or if they are out-and-out lying,” she said.

(Similarly, CPS says Ericson school “lacks science and computer labs”; Chicago Public Fools reports the school has a science lab and four computer labs.)

Community schools

Catalyst describes Henson as “a hub for the community.”  The school converted three classrooms into a health clinic run by Erie Family Health Center for students and community members, and Erie helped set up a food pantry.

The health clinic moved to Henson from Frazier when it was closed and absorbed into Henson.  But it’s unlikely there will be space at the next proposed receiving school, Charles Evan Hughes Elementary.  With Henson’s 250 students joining Hughes’s 300 students, the student body could be significantly higher than the Hughes school’s building capacity of 510 listed by CPS.

And since CPS uses building capacity rather than program capacity as its standard — and allows for class sizes as high as 36 — its utilization standard consistently overstates real school capacity.

Henson is a hub in more ways than those.  Leonard visited Henson during spring break, while school was out, and found it bustling.  “One set of students was doing athletics, another set was choreographing their own dance, another was writing their own music.”  Will a school at 100 percent capacity have room for that kind of programming?

In an internet ad paid for by the Walton Family Foundation, Barbara Byrd-Bennett waxes eloquent about what children deserve:  “With our consolidations, we’ll be able to guarantee that our children will get what they need and deserve, and that parents will now walk into their child’s school and see their child engaged in a dance studio, see their child engaged in a science experiment, see their child with access to technology.”

In fact, though, a dance program, a technology lab, and a health clinic are being shut down at Henson — and it’s quite unlikely there will be room for all those programs at Hughes.

Many of the schools slated for closing are community schools, Katten said. But the consolidated schools will be hard-pressed to replicate the same breadth of programming.

With the consolidations, “schools will have to choose between huge class sizes or giving up programs,” she said.  “It’s going to be one or the other.

“Schools will be forced to increase class sizes a ton or give up space they’re using for things CPS admits they should have.”

Lafayette Elementary has gotten wide attention for its music program.  It’s being closed, and its hugely successful string orchestra program is up in the air, said Merit Music executive director Tom Bracy.   “We’re hoping we can bring the program to Chopin,” the school set to absorb Lafayette, “so we don’t lose 100 students who are currently playing stringed instruments.”

(Photo by Sarah Ji)

(Photo by Sarah Ji)

But even if they succeed in keeping the program going, it will be a different program.  With one-third of Lafayette’s students in special ed, including a well-regarded autism program, the school’s orchestra has fully integrated students with disabilities, as has the school itself.

“Our kids play together, they have gym together, they have art together, music” one Lafayette mother told DNAinfo.

But while Lafayette’s general education students are being sent to Chopin, its special education students are going to “schools capable of handling the needs of the children,” DNAinfo reported.

So even if Lafayette’s orchestra survives, many of the children who have benefitted the most from it will no longer be part of it.

How many programs like this, initiated and supported by communities and schools at a time when CPS has been cutting art and music, will be swept away in the tsunami of school closings?

One thing is clear: CPS has no idea.  All the impassioned testimony from parents and teachers about vital programs, about the realities of space use, about the need for long-range planning, and about serious safety concerns seems to have had no impact on the district’s decision-making process, which could be defined in two words: “mayoral control.”



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