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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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On school closings, West Siders offer alternatives

West Side parents and educators have called for a boycott of CPS’s school closing hearing Saturday morning and will hold an alternative community meeting instead (April 6, May Community Academy, 512 S. Lavergne, starting with a press conference at 10 a.m.) where they’ll present a community school plan.

Perhaps Mayor Emanuel ought to go.

He’s the one who recently said, “What I won’t accept is when people are asked, what’s your alternative, what’s your idea, and there’s silence.”

In fact several communities have developed their own plans, including strategic visions developed by six Community Actions Councils sponsored by CPS to improve communications with its stakeholders.

“They all fall on deaf ears,” said Elce Redmond of the South Austin Coalition.  “The mayor has said his decision is final, and he doesn’t care what people have to say about it.”

“It’s a waste of time to go to the CPS hearing,” said Dwayne Truss of the Save Our Neighborhood Schools coalition.  “Nobody that can make any decisions is going to be there.  It’s a dog-and-pony show.”

As for CPS staff, he said, “They’re sticking to their talking points.”

CPS has proposed closing four schools in  Austin, impacting 2,000 students, according to Austin Talks. Saturday’s official hearing is for Louis Armstrong Elementary.

Reducing truancy

SONS will present an alternative plan that will minimize school closings and save CPS money, Truss said.

The plan is based on the strategic educational plan developed by the Austin CAC, which Truss co-chaired with Ald. Deborah Graham (29th).  The council included 25 elected officials, LSC members, religious and community leaders, and city agencies.

That plan focused on solutions to problems like high truancy rates and a lack of all-day early education programs, and proposed developing a range of curricular choices for Austin students, including an IB network running from elementary through high school.

Read the rest of this entry »

What’s the plan for Chicago schools?

Not surprisingly, with the upheaval of over 50 school closings affecting 30,000 students and thousands of employees, CPS planning for its ten-year master facilities plan has been less than robust.

According to CPS officials, their outreach to schools is incomplete, and their community engagement section is piggy-backing on testimony at hearings on school closings, though the many thousands of parents who participated didn’t know that.

The ten-year master plan was mandated by the school facilities reform law passed unanimously by the General Assembly in 2011 to bring transparency to CPS’s school actions.  A draft was originally due in January, but in December the legislature pushed the deadline back to May 1, with a final plan now due in October.

The law mandated close consultation with schools, and with other government agencies on plans for housing and economic development, resulting in a master plan that addresses the facility and space needs for every CPS school over a ten-year period.

Outreach incomplete

Instead CPS e-mailed an online survey to principals and LSC chairs, but many schools have failed to respond, and the deadline for response has been extended, CPS planner John Ribolzi told a recent hearing of the legislature’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, which overseens implementation of the facilities law.

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‘Disaster capitalism’ at CPS

The tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War fell about ten days before CPS was set to announce what could be the largest single school closing operation ever.

The parallels are striking: ambitious programs dictated top-down by politicians over widespread public disapproval, administered willy-nilly by overburdened bureacracies — both driven by ideology that wilfully disregards the perspectives of people on the ground.

In Iraq — a war which Mayor Emanuel enthusiastically supported, and which has cost at least 200,000 lives and over $2 trillion to the U.S. treasury — there was a political and media consensus on the threat of weapons of mass destruction that depended on ignoring the facts being reported by international monitors at the time.

There was a political, ideological hubris that ignored warnings of chaos likely to ensue.  And there was a huge push to sell off publicly-owned enterprises, resulting in massive corruption.

At CPS there’s a $1 billion “budget deficit” and a claim of 100,000 “empty seats,” and an elite consensus that this situation requires closing schools.  The consensus depends on ignoring CPS’s record of wildly inflating projected deficits, as well as many unanswered questions about the costs and savings of closing schools — including the cost to struggling communities.

It requires ignoring the fact that CPS doesn’t have an accurate measure of its utilization.  Raise Your Hand and the Chicago Tribune have documented how the district inflates underutilization rates by using inflated class sizes in its building capacity measurement.

And in community hearings, school after school, principals, teachers and parents, one after another, have argued that CPS’s building capacity measure fails to account for program capacity, the standard that is used by cities across the country — and a standard that would result in higher utilization rates.

***

So CPS can’t really say what its budget deficit will be, and can’t really say how well its schools are being used.  But these are details.

The central contradiction in the establishment consensus over school closings is Emanuel’s plan to spend millions of dollars to open a new wave of charter schools.  This puts the lie to every claim about budget constraints and empty seats.

Pilsen/LV Closings Commission Hearing

The consensus depends on ignoring the district’s stated goal of opening 60 new charter schools.  It requires ignoring the expedited application process promised to charter operators — and the promise to identify underserved areas available for new charter operations — in the Gates Compact signed last year.

It requires ignoring Emanuel’s statement that he hopes charter operators view the compact as “an opportunity to set up shop” in Chicago.

It requires overlooking the strategy document for closing neighborhood schools and opening charters, revealed by the Tribune in December, that notes the “perceived inconsistency” and suggests staging the closings and openings in two phases.

Throw in charter expansion, and budget and capacity issues go out the window.  It becomes clear that the agenda is purely about privatization.

It’s a textbook case of what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism” — a theory first inspired by the “reconstruction” of Iraq — using (or creating) a crisis as cover for turning over public services to private interests.

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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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Bronzeville youth, community leaders to speak on violence

While politicians push tougher law enforcement to address youth violence, community leaders and youth in Bronzeville are demanding that the root causes of violence — including unemployment, disinvestment, and school closings — be put at the top of the agenda.

At 4 p.m. on Thursday, February 12 14, youth leaders from five high schools — including King College Prep, where Hadiya Pendleton was a student, and where one of the suspects in her murder graduated – will hold a press conference at 4 p.m. at Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st Street.  They’re part of Leaders Investing For Equality (LIFE), which for several years has pushed for restoration of funding cut from youth employment programs.

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, the Bronzeville Alliance and Centers for New Horizons will hold a press conference at the Ellis Childcare Center, 4301 S. Cottage, to launch a community initiative to coordinate social services for community youth and families and to advocate for a reversal of cutbacks they say have destabilized the community.

In media coverage of youth violence, “there doesn’t seem to be much discussion of the root causes of these problems and the responsiblity of government and the private sector for years of disinvestment in minority communities,” said John Owens of CNH.

“We’ve had many years of jobs being lost and cutbacks in a whole range of social services – and the whole idea of closing schools is just another form of cutbacks,” he said.

“There’s been no discussion of youth employment, no discussion of the destabilization of families when jobs are lost and parents are working odd hours, no discussion of afterschool programs that are relevant,” Owens said.  “The bottom line is that we need to understand what it means to build community and we need to start building it – with the kind of resources that are needed for a community in crisis.”

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