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Common sense on school closings

When she was first appointed, CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett was fond of talking of the necessity of restoring trust 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 top-performing Calhoun North based in part on Alderman Fioretti’s observation that new housing was going up across the street, Bebley wrote: “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.

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Planning lags for homeless students

Homeless students are more than twice as likely than others to be impacted by Mayor Emanuel’s school closings, according to an analysis by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

And if plans for transitioning homeless students are any indication, CPS preparations for school closings are far behind where they’ve been at this point in previous years — and far behind where they need to be.

The 3,900 homeless students who would be impacted if the school board approves all proposed mergers, turnarounds and co-locations represent 8.5 percent of impacted students — more than twice the share of homeless students citywide, which CPS reports as 4 percent, according to CCH.

The 1,400 homeless  students displaced from closing schools represents an even higher proportion — 8.7 percent of students subject to displacement.

CCH’s Law Project has assisted homeless students impacted by school closures since 2004, and “CPS has never demonstrated its ability to successfully serve students transitioning to new schools,” said Patricia Nix-Hodes, the coalition’s associate legal director. “We have seen students lost in the process as well as students at risk of increased violence.

“Even on a much smaller scale, receiving schools have not been adequately prepared,” Nix-Hodes said.  “Students have arrived to new schools without enough desks, books or staff. School records have failed to arrive in a timely manner. Adequate transportation has not been provided to get students to the new school.

“It is inconceivable that CPS will be able to provide all impacted with better school choices and meaningful transition and transportation services, especially with the final announcements taking place so late in the school year.”

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AUSL turnarounds called ineffective, expensive

Why is deficit-challenged CPS proposing to spend over $1 million a year to “turn around” each of six schools, using a program that’s produced mediocre results — especially when teachers at four of the schools have voted to support a far cheaper and more effective turnaround proposal?

Could the political connections of the Academy for Urban School Leadership — whose big-dollar donors include major contributors to Mayor Emanuel, like David Vitale, Penny Pritzker and Bruce Rauner — have something to do with it?


Of twelve turnaround schools listed on AUSL’s website which the group took over between 2006 and 2010, ten of them are on academic probation today.    Only one of them is rated as Level 1 — “high performing” — by CPS.

Of those twelve schools, eleven were below the CPS district-wide average for ISAT composite scores.  AUSL’s top-scoring school had a composite score that was equal to the CPS average, which is lower than half its schools.

Three AUSL turnarounds at CPS high schools are abject failures, with scores far below district averages and negligible growth.

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Closing schools, cutting resources

The rhetoric around school closings is now about focusing resources.

That communication strategy is dictated by the fact that school closings turn out not to be about deficits or utilization — since they won’t save money for several years, if ever, and since the “utilization crisis,” caused by adding 50,000 charter seats during a decade when CPS lost 30,000 students, is being addressed by adding more charters.

CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett now says closing schools will allow CPS to provide libraries, air conditioning, iPads and “learning gardens” at a small group of receiving schools.

It’s odd, then, that Byrd-Bennet recommends closing a school like Manierre, where Target provided a $200,000 grant to upgrade their library just two years ago. The funding covered 2,000 new books, a computer lab with iPads, and a family reading corner.

Independent hearing officer Paddy McNamara has recommended against closing Manierre, but CPS general counsel James Bebley filed a response arguing that in doing so, she “exceeded the scope of her authority” by considering information beond what CPS submitted.


In her report, McNamara called “baffling” the failure of CPS to note Manierre’s participation in “five distinct multimillion-dollar initiatives that are in mid-implementation” — all started within the past two years.

Manierre Elementary's new library - slated for closing

Manierre Elementary’s new library – slated for closing

These include the Target library makeover and Children’s Literacy Initiative. Manierre’s Ferguson Center is also part of a federally-funded revitalization of parent-child centers — a renewed priority in Chicago — with funding going to expand to full-day preschool and develop curriculum alignment from preschool through 3rd grade — an emerging priority in the field of early education.

That’s one of two intensive professional development programs under way at the school. Manierre is also one of eight schools where teachers are working with the Erikson Institute’s ground-breaking early childhood math instruction project.

Closing Manierre would end all these programs, which would mean big investments of money, time and effort down the drain.

With all the talk about “resources,” it’s worth looking at the resources that will be eliminated if the school board votes to close 53 schools.

In a school district that where a third of neighborhood elementary schools have to choose between a part-time art or music teacher — and where nearly a tenth of neighborhood schools have neither — many of the schools CPS is proposing to close have arts programming by outside groups that will be lost.

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Reality check: closing schools, saving money?

For month after month, Chicagoans have been told that CPS has to close schools because it has a $1 billion deficit.

How will people react after the massive disruption of wholesale school closings, when the district’s financial problems remain unchanged?

And that’s before Mayor Emanuel starts handing out new contracts to charter schools.

CPS says they’ll save something like a billion dollars over the next decade by closing 54 schools.  There’s reason to be skeptical.

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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.

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What could go wrong?

Buried in a recent Fox TV report was this tidbit:  multiple City Hall and CPS sources said that Barbara Byrd-Bennett had determined that the district could handle closing 40 schools this year.

But Mayor Emanuel overruled his new schools chief and insisted on upping the number to over 50.  (An official spokesperson denied the report.)

Hotter heads prevailed, you might say.

Those who suggest the whole process of community hearings was a charade aimed at a number predetermined by Emanuel, rather than an exercise in transparency and civic accountability, may be on to something.

Proposed school closings and 2012 homicide heat map (by Radicals Against Discrimination)

Proposed school closings and 2012 homicide heat map (by Radicals Against Discrimination)

It wasn’t the first time warnings about overreaching have been overruled.  In January, someone on Byrd-Bennett’s advisory commission on closings let it be known that they were considering recommending no more than 20 closings — perhaps as few as 15 — in one year.

“They haven’t demonstrated to us that they can close 100 or even 50 schools,” an unnamed commission source told the Sun-Times.  “They don’t have the expertise to accomplish that in such a short timeframe.  When they closed down as many as 12 schools, it was a disaster.”

Something happened to change their minds by March 6 — perhaps a fiat from the mayor’s office — when the commission’s final report recommended 80 closings, based on its assessment of the district’s capacity to move students safely to better performing schools.

Even then, the commission suggested the option of staging the closings over two years, noting the risks of moving too quickly.  “The quick turnaround may make community members feel that CPS’s engagement with them was inauthentic and undertaking just for show” — and “the compressed timeline may lead to the district making avoidable mistakes” in handling the vast logistics of moving dozens of schools and thousands of students, according to the commission’s final report.

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Are school closings racist?

Some people think so.

At the most basic level, there’s the fact that decisions about African American communities are being made without their consent.

Of 54 school closings proposed by CPS, 51 are in low-income African American areas; 90 percent of students being impacted are black.

“If you look at the people making the decisions and the communities they’re talking about, you have white males saying they know what’s best for African American students,” said Austin schools activist Dwayne Truss.

“Barbara Byrd-Bennett is not calling the shots,” he said.  “Mayor Emanuel and David Vitale and Tim Cawley are calling the shots.  She’s just an expert in closing schools who they brought in to do that.  She’s just the messenger.”

Comments Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition, “She’s put in place to implement these policies so they can hide behind her.”

Byrd-Bennett “would not have been hired if she was not on board with [Emanuel’s school closing agenda] — and with the priority of providing opportunities for private educational interests to make money bringing in mediocre interventions for black children,” said Jitu Brown of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization.

Three high schools

For Brown, it’s about the school system’s priorities — and that’s a civil rights and human rights issue.

“The priority has been to disinvest from minority communities and invest in failed programs, invest in charter schools and contract schools,” he said. “The priority has been that minority children don’t have the same quality of education.

“Example: Look at North Side College Prep, they have 22 AP classes.  Lakeview High, with about 18 or 20 percent African American students, a few blocks from the mayor’s house, they have 12 AP classes.  Dyett High School, 99 percent African American and 95 percent low-income, no AP classes.

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