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Common sense on school closings

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When she was first appointed, CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett was fond of talking of the necessity of restoring trust [2] that had been broken by previous administrations.  She promised a thorough community engagement process around this wave of school closings.

And there have been innumberable forums for public input since January.  The problem is, it’s been almost entirely ignored.

CPS’s basic criteria for deciding to close schools — its utilization standard and performance policy — have been roundly critiqued.  But hearing officers have noted that much public testimony has focused on concerns that CPS school action guidelines deem “discretionary” — things like safety and security, culture and climate, school leadership, facility conditions, special programming and community feedback.  The district chief “may” take these into account.

Some officers ruled that the school board should take these concerns into account, and recommended against closing; others ruled that CPS had met the legal requirements for closing a school, but strongly recommended that the board look into community concerns in its own evaluation and decision-making.

Which only makes sense.  The people in the schools know much better than the people downtown what’s going on in the schools, particularly around the key issue of utilization.

But CPS general counsel James Bebley reacted with defensive legalisms.  When hearing officer Cheryl Starks ruled against closing [3]top-performing Calhoun North based in part on Alderman Fioretti’s observation that new housing was going up across the street, Bebley wrote [4]: “The CEO has the discretion to consider neighborhood development plans, but failure to do so does not impede the CEO’s power to propose closure.”

Well, okay.  It’s your ballgame, and you write the rules.  But doesn’t common sense tell you that that kind of information is relevant and worth considering?  I mean, come on.

Right now someone at City Hall is deciding what small number of schools to take off the list as a sop to public outrage.  But if our school governance system worked properly, it would be the Board of Education itself applying independent, critical oversight — and common sense — to the decision-making process.

There was a lot of common sense offered in the hundreds of hours of public testimony over recent months, and a number of common themes emerged.

1.  The CPS utilization standard and performance metric are poor measures of the realities in schools. 

Public testimony has consistently noted that the district’s utilization standards fail to account for educational programming in schools. The Chicago Educational Faciities Task Force [5], created and appointed by the legislature, has consistently backed them up: the state facilities law requires school utilization standards to account for school programs as well as use by community organizations offering programming.  CPS’s standards do neither.

It’s particularly egregious when it comes to special education.  As a recent post spelled out [6], there are schools on the closing list where the number of self-contained special ed classrooms is larger than the school’s total allotment for “ancillary” rooms — art, music, science or tech labs, special ed, etc.

So school closings are having a disproportionate impact on special ed students, a number of well-regarded programs are being dispersed, and students with IEPs are likely to end up getting less attention in their new schools.

2.  Public comment has consistently rejected the CPS standard which says the “ideal” size for elementary classes is 30, and that classrooms with up to 36 kids are “effectively utilized.”

The Tribune has shown [7]that actual class sizes vary widely but on average are much lower than the CPS standard — 57 percent of elementary schools had average class sizes of 26 or less, according to a district analysis:

“Setting the benchmark higher than what records indicate is reality across Chicago — and far higher than in many suburbs…allows the mayor and school officials to drive the debate with attention-grabbing statistics” — like the claim that half of all schools are underutilized, or that there are 100,000 “empty seats.”

In other words, the basic assumptions driving school closings are based on manipulated statistics.  (Too bad the Tribune’s editorial board [8] doesn’t read its own paper’s news coverage.)

A recent WBEZ report [9] contains an important admission by CPS officials: yes, school closings will result in increased class sizes in receiving schools.

For months, as Raise Your Hand [10] and others raised the alarm about overcrowding resulting from school closings, CPS has argued that larger class sizes are linked to underutilization.  Underutilized schools get less money and can’t afford a full cohort of teachers, leading to larger homerooms and split classrooms.

The implication was that closing schools would help reduce class sizes.

But BEZ reports that the schools targeted for closing tend to have lower class sizes.  And CPS admits that in merging schools, class sizes will go up.

Right now, there are 50,000 children in CPS homerooms larger than the district limit, including 8,000 in homerooms with more than 35 kids, and some in classes with as many as 45, according to the report.

With school closings, those numbers will go up.  Raise Your Hand has identified [11] eight receiving schools that are on probation, and where mergers will cause overcrowding.

Common sense tells you there’s no way that’s a good thing.

3.  CPS’s performance policy doesn’t make sense.

Not when statistical legerdemain results in schools with lower test scores being rated “better performing” than schools with higher test scores, as both the Tribune [12] and the Sun Times [13] have documented.

Lots of community people have spoken to this during hearings, and several hearing officers made note of it as well.

WBEZ now reports that in only 3 of 53 school closings are student being sent to top-performing schools [14], which research is shown is necessary for achievement to improve as a result of school closings.

Then you have extra-funny stuff, as at Henson [15] and Paderewski [16] — where higher-rated schools are designated as receiving schools, but attendance boundaries are split up to send future students to lower-performing schools.  (In Paderewski’s case [17], hearing officer Patrick McGann questioned the boundary realignment.)

A responsible, independent school board would tell CPS to go back to the drawing board, come up with utilization standards and performance metrics that make sense (and fulfill statutory requirements), and only then consider whether some school closings are advisable.

4.  School leadership, culture, community partnerships, and educational programs really matter and should be taken into account. 

5.  School closings cause violence.

Hopefully school board members are studying the current Sun Times series [18] on the routes children will have to walk if their schools are closed.  It’s scary.

Even better, they should themselves walk the routes they are considering forcing neighborhood children to walk.

Much fear was expressed in community hearings — and over and over, much skepticism about CPS’s blanket reassurances that they knew how to provide for children’s security.

“We’ve seen increased violence every time they’ve closed schools,” anti-violence activist Rev. Robin Hood told Newstips [19] last month.

And Jitu Brown of KOCO pointed out [19] that school closings have led to the growth of street crews, a point DePaul professor Horace Hall underscored [20] at a forum last week: often kids join gangs for protection, to avoid walking alone when they have to navigate gang boundaries on the way to and from school.

Several hearing officers rejected CPS’s draft security plans as inadequate.  In his ruling on the closing of Stewart [21], Charles Winkler urged delaying action a year:  “Since a definitive safety plan will not be ready until late August, CPS should consider delaying implementation of the proposal until the 2014-15 school year.”

6. There are smarter ways to fix CPS finances.

It turns out school closings aren’t going to save any money [22] anytime soon, if ever — so the rationale that “we can’t wait” because there’s a “billion-dollar deficit” should be put to rest.  If school closings are actually going to cost money, at least for the first few years, maybe we should be focusing on bigger things.

In any case, causing massive disruption in the lives of students and communities in order to save $43 million a year in operating costs (minus $233 million in “investments,” minus $25 million a year for 30 years to finance the investments) doesn’t get you very far compared to what community members raised in hearing after hearing — the $250 million a year taken from schools by TIFs [23].

7.  Charters aren’t what everyone wants

Lots of people spoke out against charters.  Some view them as outsider-controlled, while they have a sense of ownership with their own schools.

Lots of neighborhood schools speak of being undermined by aggressive charter recruitment.  (If the waiting lists [24] are so long, why do they have to spend so much money on recruitment?  And is that a good use of philanthropic resources?)  The Trib’s report suggests [25] Calhoun is losing enrollment to a Learn charter campus across the street — one of three Learn charters in a neighborhood where five schools are proposed for closing.

An expansion of charters following the school closings will undermine the district’s credibility after all the talk of utilization and budget crises.  If the goal is to close neighborhood schools and open charters, the decent thing would be to say so.

Perhaps at least the concept of “school choice” could be expanded to include families that want their neighborhood schools.

8. Why not try real engagement?

Common sense would tell you that many of the qualities known to be crucial in improving schools — effective leadership, a culture of trust and collaboration — are necessary in any well-functioning organization.  But they are missing at CPS.

We have a leadership that manipulates data, pursues hidden agendas, and makes promises it can’t keep; we have a cuture of fear, distrust and disrespect.  The main problem comes from the top.

From the start, Mayor Emanuel has chosen confrontation as his only tactic in addressing schools.  From what I’m told, the mayor has little real interest or understanding of education policy; he basically just listens to Bruce Rauner, the far-right ideologue who thinks the problem with schools is unions and the answer is charters, and a few others.

I’m no psychologist, but Emanuel seems to feel like he’s not accomplishing anything unless he’s fighting with someone.

Byrd-Bennett and the Tribune get upset when people call school closings racist — and they might be advised not to dismiss [26] out of hand this very widespread sentiment [27] — but no one could deny that time and again, Emanuel has chosen the most divisive approach possible.

He approached the longer school day as a “win-lose” proposition [28] when that was unnecessary; he precipitated the first teachers strike in decades through incompetence [29]; and he’s chosen to address the supposed billion-dollar deficit with a non-solution that nonetheless has riled up many communities, turned off huge numbers of parents who feel shut out, and turned large segments of the city’s population against him [30].

If there’s any lesson from all the community hearings, it’s that there’s a huge reservoir of concern and commitment to schools in neighborhoods across the city, a huge supply of dedicated and passionate parents and teachers, and an awful lot of students who love their schools.  That’s something that effective leadership would cheer and build on.

Unfortunately, the approach of Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett has been to push these people aside.

To fix schools in Chicago, we’re going to need leadership that brings people together to solve problems — the way radical community groups and conservative business groups cooperated to win local control in the late 1980s.  We’re going to have to honor the work that educators do, involve parents and community groups, and heed the wisdom of the community.

In the meantime, we could use a school board with the capacity to think for itself.