Which CPS school consolidation is not like any other one?
That would be Mollison Elementary, 4415 S. King Drive, which is being “consolidated into” Wells Prep, which is housed in Phillips High.
In every other consolidation CPS has undertaken, that would mean Mollison students and staff would be heading to Wells Prep’s building next year. But in this case, Wells students and staff are moving to Mollison.
It’s one of several oddities in this year’s crop of school closings in Bronzeville, a community where gentrification has accompanied a string of school closings, and the discrepancies underscore community demands for greater transparency and coordination in school planning.
In reality, CPS is closing Wells Prep in order to make room for yet another intervention at Phillips, this time a “turnaround,” said Andrea Lee, education organizer for the Grand Boulevard Federation.
But the “student bill of rights” recently promulgated by CPS chief Ron Huberman promises not to send students to lower performing schools when schools are closed or consolidated. And more than 70 percent of Wells Prep students met or exceeded standards on the ISAT last year, versus 54 percent at Mollison.
So announcing the consolidation of Wells Prep into Mollison would openly violate the “bill of rights,” at the very moment it was being announced.
But making Mollison the consolidating school also denies Wells parents and staff a public hearing over the loss of their school, Lee said.
Another incongruity is the reason given for Mollison’s “consolidation” — chronic underperformance. On last years ISATs 54 percent of its students were at or above standards, and their scores have gone up 20 percent since 2003, Lee said. “Mollison is chronically underperforming?” she scoffs. “Come on.”
In fact, there are six schools in Bronzeville with lower ISAT scores, and 74 schools citywide have lower scores on CPS’s “performance policy” ratings.
But by closing the school for underperformance (rather than underenrollment), CPS can fire the school’s administrators and teachers, Lee points out.
Mollison received 18 percent of the possible points in its “performance policy” scoring, a complex calculation awarding points for test scores and attendance rates, with more points for favorable trends, and a “value-added” measurement that’s been questioned by experts.
The performance rating “doesn’t reflect reality,” said Lee. It involves “a lot of manipulation of data.”
The rating “gives an illusion of precision,” though “if you start to look at why certain criteria are chosen and why they are given particular weight, it’s all very arbitrary,” said Don Moore of Designs for Change. “It’s incredibly convoluted.”
It can also lead to absurdities, he said, citing Kellman Elementary in North Lawndale, a magnet school that has been “repeatedly recognized for outstanding academic achievement,” according to Catalyst. Though its student body is 93 percent low-income, 77.4 percent of its students met or exceeded ISAT standards last year – significantly higher than the CPS average. But because scores were even higher a few years ago, Kellman gets only 38 percent of possible “performance rating” points, which means it’s now on probation.
“There’s a real question whether this is an appropriate basis for deciding whether to close schools,” Moore said. In addition, “the performance measure completely distracts people from thinking long term about how to improve learning,” Moore said. “They start thinking about how to make enought points to avoid probation or the threat of closure.”
If it were designed to improve learning rather than to triage school closings, it would focus on factors that have been shown to actually improve learning – most recently in a new book by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which identified school leadership, professional capacity, and ties with parents and community among factors that determine whether schools will improve. (Designs for Change identified similar factors in a 2005 study of 144 improving neighborhood schools.)
Another Bronzeville school targeted for consolidation is McCorkle Elementary, 4421 S. State. CPS says building repairs for the school are cost-prohibitive. Lee questions this rationale, too.
The $4 million in needed repairs, reflecting years of neglect, is far less than the 50 percent of replacement cost that is CPS’s general standard for determining cost effectiveness, she said. She also notes that there are twelve schools in Bronzeville that need repairs of more than $4 million.
Meanwhile, new housing is under construction across the street from the school.
“What’s really going on – and why McCorkle?” she asked.
On top of lack of transparency and accountability, Lee said, there’s a lack of planning and coordination – evident in overcrowding now affecting South Loop Elementary – all pointing to the need for a comprehensive facilities master plan for Chicago schools.
Lee is a member of the new legislative commission that will study the question. And working with parents and educators in Bronzeville, she’s developing a facilities master plan for the community. It aims to involve the community in decisions that will be necessary regarding schools with declining enrollments and old and neglected facilities, where demographics are shifting.
“I don’t think CPS has proven to the community and the taxpayers that it has a real plan for how to accommodate new families in the community,” she said. “Until CPS has a master facility plan in place it has no business closing these schools, hurting these kids, and eroding the community.”
The lack of transparency makes it hard for parents to trust CPS, she said. “The sentiment in the community is that CPS seems to be giving up on our neighborhood schools….
“These are schools that have made progress while facing great challenges, and they have been crying out for resources. McCorkle has been talking about building disrepair for years. We should be talking about what we are doing to make schools better.”
McCorkle has a hearing Friday at 5:30 p.m. at the Board of Education, and Mollison at 8 p.m. on Monday, February 8. Wells Prep doesn’t have one. [Wells’ parents and staff can testify at Mollison’s hearing, Lee said.]