school facilities – Chicago Newstips by Community Media Workshop Chicago Community Stories Mon, 08 Jan 2018 18:45:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 At Whittier, CPS demolishes a library Sun, 18 Aug 2013 18:49:27 +0000 Despite Mayor Emanuel’s rhetoric about a “21st century education” for every student, his school budget cuts have resulted in the layoff of librarians at 50 elementary schools; at nearly all of them, that means they won’t have functioning library.

Now CPS has gone a step further, demolishing the library built by parents at Whittier Elementary.

Despite the rhetoric about parent empowerment and community involvement — despite Barbara Byrd Bennett’s high-sounding promises about “restoring trust” — the demolition was ordered and carried out with no communication with the parents who had created and fought for the library and community center they called La Casita.


A little history:  after a 43-day occupation of the fieldhouse at Whittier in the fall of 2010, then-CPS chief Ron Huberman promised not to demolish the building and agreed to work with Whittier parents and elected officials to find funding to improve La Casita, to be operated by the parents committee as a community center.

In the summer of 2011, then-CPS chief Jean Claude Brizard tried to demolish La Casita, but when demolition crews showed unannounced, parents reoccupied the building.  In the aftermath, Brizard acknowledged the Huberman agreement and expressed his “eagerness to formalize a lease agreement and turn the fieldhouse over to the Whittier Parents Committee” in a letter to the parents.

CPS says an August 12 engineering inspection found the structure unsafe, requiring immediate demolition, with no time to consult with the parents group.  But the Sun Times reports that “an almost identical report” by the same engineering firm issued in May “call[s] into question the rational [CPS spokesperson Becky] Carroll gave for the hurried destruction this weekend.”

Carroll also said the Whittier Parents never signed a lease.  But Gema Gaete of the parents committee said they’d proposed changes to onerous provisions in the lease offered by CPS, and that letters from lawyers for the parents seeking to iron out issues were never answered.

In a final show of bad faith, CPS offered to meet with parents at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday.  By that time, demolition was underway.

On his Facebook page, Ald. Danny Solis said he would be meeting with CPS and Whittier parents on Saturday morning.  But at a back-to-school fair he sponsored Saturday morning — where Whittier supporters showed up to confront him — a staffer told the Sun Times Solis was “out of town, on vacation.”

CPS promises to build an artificial-turf field, raising the question of whether the deal pushed by Solis for a soccer field for Cristo Rey, a nearby Jesuit high school, is back on track.  According to DNAInfo, it the new facilities will be built with TIF funds.

Schools without libraries

During the 2010 occupation, Whittier emerged as a symbol of a widespread problem in CPS — schools without libraries.   Before La Casita, Whittier was one of over 160 CPS schools that don’t have a library.*  A few are being installed in schools receiving students from closing schools, but at the same time, 43 elementary schools are losing their librarians, according to Raise Your Hand.

Another seven are losing some library staffing, according to the group.  In addition, 26 high schools are losing librarians.

So under Mayor Emanuel, CPS schools without functioning libraries are headed toward the 200 mark, possibly topping it.  And now Whittier is again without a library.

CPS seized about 2,000 books, many of them brand new, from the library in La Casita, said Lisa Angonese, a former Whittier parent who’s continued to run the library.  After the 2010 sit-in, books were donated from all over the world, she said.

Also seized were the library’s iPads, Kindles, and computers.  “These were resources that the community was using as of yesterday,” she said.

La Casita featured readings by neighborhood authors, documentary film screenings, and programs on topics like domestic violence, foreclosure prevention and immigration rights, along with ESL and GED classes, she said.  It also provided a safe haven for children during dangerous after-school hours.

These are services the community needs, and it was all provided at no cost to the public, she said.

Maybe CPS will go forward with its long-delayed promise to install a library in Whittier, but Angonese doesn’t know where.  The last proposal was to put up a divider in a small room now used as a resource room for special education students, she said.

The Whittier parents are now demanding that Emanuel and Solis restore the services and resources that have been snatched away.  They’re calling for a new fieldhouse to replace La Casita.

After an all-night vigil and a march to Solis’s school fair and back, the Whittier mothers and their supporters formed a circle in the middle of the street and held hands.  One leader thanked God for La Casita and for bringing the community together.  We have not been defeated, she promised.

Today, Whittier symbolizes something beyond the lack of libraries:  hardworking parents doing everything they can to support their children’s education, and being undercut and disrespected by CPS.

Meanwhile, a new volunteer group is collecting books for CPS elementary schools that have no library, focusing on schools with high rates of poverty and homelessness.  So far Books First Chicago has set up libraries in Deneen, McCutcheon, and Parker Elementary.

At Parker, the group reports on its Facebook page, the principal had planned to start a library, but funding was withdrawn by CPS.


* As Matt Farmer reported at the time, it was Whittier mothers who obtained and released the list of 160 schools without libraries — overwhelmingly concentrated on the South and West Sides.

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What’s the plan for Chicago schools? Sat, 23 Mar 2013 19:11:13 +0000 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.

According to his Linked-In profile, Ribolzi joined the CPS Office of Strategy Management last July after three years as vice president of a car-sharing company.  Previously he was a sales manager for Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

Ribolzi told the task force that instead of specific school and community meetings on the facilities plan, testimony at recent community hearings on the district’s school closing process has been used to craft the community engagement section of the facilities plan.

Feedback loop

He’s extracting comments regarding students’ social-emotional, health, and academic needs, as well as community and facilities issues, he said.  “Any opportunity to hear feedback from the community on those five topics is what I’m targeting,” he said.

That’s problematic, task force members say, because parents and community members in the hearings focused on arguments for keeping their schools open — which was indeed the stated purpose of the hearings — and not on long-term issues.

“We were concerned with how that would be disaggregated, because there was so much going on with utilization,” said Nona Burney, a Roosevelt University education professor who represents Grand Boulevard Federation on the task force.

“Parents [didn’t] know that they’re going into those spaces to talk about what’s going to happen in their neighborhoods for the next ten years,” said Cecile Carroll, a task force member from Blocks Together.

“The ten-year plan was supposed to look at population projections for the city, which CPS has not done for any of the neighborhoods yet,” she said. “We don’t know where there’s growth in our communities, and [whether] we will actually end up closing schools where they may be needed in the next five to ten years.”

Ribolzi said CPS has “multiple planners” gathering demographic data.

Closing schools, opening schools

At a press conference last week, leaders of the legisature’s black and Latino caucuses called for postponing school closings until a facilities plan is in place.

“We’re asking for a draft plan as stated in Public Act 970474,” said State Representative Ken Dunkin (D-5th), referring to the facilities reform law. “We appreciate maximum utilization of our resources, but talk to us and listen to the parents, the community stakeholders, the leaders. Listen to your own aldermen.”

It’s somewhat ironic that school and community testimony on utilization issues is being used for the facilities plan.  In response to calls for a plan to guide school actions, CPS communications chief Becky Carroll “said the master facilities ten-year plan is a completely different process than the steps CPS is taking now to address the ‘utilization crisis,'” the Sun Times reported.

“The ten-year plan is…setting up a vision; it’s goal-setting around facilities in our district,” Becky Carroll said.  “It has nothing to do with addressing the fact that our schools are severely underutilized….The steps we’re taking right now [are] to right-size the district.”

There’s a larger irony, too:  the purpose of the school facilities law was to bring transparency to CPS’s planning.

Instead, according to advocates for neighborhood schools, the district is carrying out Mayor Emanuel’s long-term plan to close neighborhood schools and open charters.

They just aren’t talking to the public about it.  And for the most part, the media is cooperating.


Reporting by Senah Yeboah-Sampong


Engaging communities and counting classrooms Fri, 08 Mar 2013 01:43:47 +0000 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.

Representatives from school after school have challenged the way CPS has rated their building’s utilization.  Often this involves listing classrooms that are used for special programs.

In many cases, principals and LSCs have done a great job bringing in community partners, outside agencies that offer the kind of crucial programming, from art and music enrichment to counseling and everything in between, that CPS has been unable to provide sufficiently to satisfy parents.

In many cases, they also point to CPS’s failure to take into account legal class size limits for special education classes.

One example of many: DNAinfo reports that at a Fuller Park hearing, Dewey Elementary principal Eric Dockery “said CPS labeled his school as 53 percent utilized. But Dockery has his own calculation, one that considers capacity for special education and pre-kindergarten rooms as well as the school’s emphasis on small class sizes and spaces for unique programs.

“Taken together, he said, that puts the school at 85 percent utilized. Dockery said he submitted that information to CPS and ‘hopefully I will hear back.'”

(Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together, a member of CEFTF, says she’s heard from several principals who reported utilization discrepancies to CPS and haven’t heard back.  I asked CPS about the protocol for schools to challenge their utilization standards.  I haven’t heard back.)


The schools are actually arguing for a more accurate utilization standard.  While CPS bases its utilization standards purely on building capacity, schools are looking at their utilization based on program capacity.

It turns out that’s what the experts recommend.  It also turns out that using program capacity as a standard, more schools would be fully utilized and fewer seats would be “empty.”

Rather than just adding up classrooms and dividing by the number of students, this involves looking at how classrooms are used.   It’s much closer to what other cities use (we’ve linked to New York’s approach here).

In Seattle they use “functional capacity,” which (as cited by a report from the Broad Foundation, where Byrd-Bennett is a paid consultant) is “determined by a walk of each facility.” That’s something CPS doesn’t do.

“Functional capacity is defined as the target number of students per school based on each school’s particular programs.  This is different from planning capacity, which is a formula designed to identify a high-level average possible enrollment for each building.

“Both numbers are important: planning capacity provides a blueprint that can be used district-wide; functional capacity provides an on-the-ground number that is specific to a particular school at a particular time given the needs of its students.”

A report from BrainSpaces, an international educational design firm based in Chicago, for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International spells out different levels of capacity measurement, ranging from maximum capacity (the number of kids you can cram in a building) to building capacity (which also considers support facilities, from hallways to lunchrooms), to functional capacity (which factors in schedule flexibility) to program capacity, which includes program offerings.

The report recommends that while building capacity should guide district-level planning, school-level decisions should be guided by program capacity.

“Most people think capacity is a mathematical formula,” said Amy Yurko, BrainSpaces founder and chair of the American Institute of Architects’ curriculum design committee.  But when you’re dealing with education, the intangibles are critical, including the role of a school in its neighborhood, she said.  “Formulas are comfortable and safe but they’re not accurate.”

Here’s the thing: as you move from the broader to the finer-grained standards, the numbers change.  If you look at program capacity, your capacity will be smaller — and your utilization rate will be higher — than you get looking at building capacity.

The BrainSpaces report gives illustrative numbers for each type of capacity measure.  They’re not based on an actual school, but they give the idea: a school with a maximum capacity of 400 could have a functional capacity of 300 and a program capacity of 240.  The actual numbers will depend on the needs of students and the programs offered to support them, Yurko said.


So when CPS says schools are underutilized and the schools themselves say they aren’t, they’re both right — they’re just using different standards.  And the schools are using the standard that’s recommended by experts throughout the field for measuring utilization at the school level.

And CPS is using a utilization standard that gives them a larger number of underutilized schools.

As the Tribune reports, CPS is also goosing its underutilization numbers by using an “ideal” class size that is far higher than class sizes outside Chicago, and in fact significantly higher than actual class sizes in Chicago.

You’d almost think the standard was set in order to maximize the number of schools that could be subject to closing.  (And it’s a fairly new standard, as Rod Estvan points out — CPS used to consider any classroom which had teaching and learning going on to be “utilized.”)


That’s what’s so incredibly curious about the final report of the School Utilization Commission, released Wednesday.  It’s headline recommendation — CPS can close 80 schools — is based on building capacity numbers.  But within the report, the commission repeatedly makes the case for using program capacity.

“Regarding the utilization formula, we conclude most importantly that it should never be used exclusively to decide which schools should be shuttered. Rather, it should be used as a starting point to decide where to look further.

“We found that factors such as annex space, students with disabilities and their needs, pre-Kindergarten classrooms, community-based health centers, and Head Start placements were critical to understanding how a school is used, and what its utilization rate should be.

“Most importantly, knowing the details of how a school is used and the needs of its students [is] critical for deciding what action, if any, to take.”


In one regard the CPS utilization formula fails on its own terms, since it’s supposed to reflect how resources flow into a school.  The formula simply ignores class size limits which determine how many special education teachers are allotted to a school.

Disability rights organization Access Living has consistently objected to CPS utilization standards, which “disregard legal limitations on class sizes in rooms designated for disabled children,” according to advocate Rod Estvan.

That shortcoming has several ramifications. It leads principals of neighborhood schools to be reluctant to accept special ed programs which could reduce their utilization rate, Estvan said.  (Another factor in their reluctance is that some of the cost of special ed programs must be borne by school budgets rather than the district.)

In addition, CPS’s policy of assuming the 25 percent allowance of classrooms for “ancillary uses” is sufficient to meet special ed needs creates an incentive to put self-contained classrooms in substandard rooms, he said.  Access Living has found self-contained classrooms placed in windowless basement rooms that are clearly inappropriate, he said.

Ignoring legal requirements also has the effect of reducing utilization rates in schools with larger special education populations.  Not surprisingly, a third of the schools listed as potential targets for closing in January were special ed cluster sites, providing specialized services that attract students from outside the school’s boundaries.  According to Catalyst, half of all schools with cluster programs were on the list.

Margie Wakelin of Equip for Equality told Catalyst that advocates are concerned the school closings could have a disparate impact on students with disabilities.


Asked by Raise Your Hand in January about the how CPS was factoring special ed into utilization rates and decisions about school closings, Byrd Bennett said CPS is “working with principals of underutilized schools to ensure that we understand any unique situations.”

That’s not good enough for Estvan — who points out that CPS already knows where all its special ed programs are located.

“It’s not a matter of ‘working with principals,’ it’s a matter of a fair calculation,” he said.

“CPS needs to do a complete functional survey of every school in order to get a reasonable estimate of utilization,” he said.  “They need to look at the function of each room.”

Estvan sharply criticized the utilization commission for inaccuracies in its interim report over how special ed classrooms are regulated.  The commission seems to have taken it somewhat to heart — and again, seems to agree that building capacity is an insufficient measure and program capacity is required:

“Given the large number of students needing specialized services and the complexity of accommodating every need appropriately, no simple formula will suffice,” according to the commission’s final report.  “Rather, CPS should look closely at each school and the needs of all its students.”


CPS should not be closing schools until it has an accurate measure of their capacity and utilization.  And currently it doesn’t have that.

That would require measuring program capacity, not just building capacity.

That’s one reason the school board should wait before making any decisions about closing schools.  Another is that a draft master plan is due May 1 and a final plan in October, and it makes no sense to make such huge decisions without that in place.

It’s not just for the big picture, either.  There are lots of pieces in motion right now.

Estvan argues that the system for distributing special ed cluster sites, established decades ago, needs to be entirely revamped — along with the system for funding special ed, so the district takes the burden off individual schools.

At the same time, CPS is completely redistributing its preschool programs, and 90 percent of the schools on the closing list were preschool sites, Catalyst has reported.

A complaint recently filed with the Illinois State Board of Education by Health and Disability Advocates charges CPS with failing to meet its legal mandate to evaluate thousands of children with disabilities and provide them special education preschool programs.  CPS has promised to do better — which will add to utilization.

And last week Mayor Emanuel announced he was instituting full-day kindergarten throughout the city.  That will affect utilization in hard-to-predict ways in the 25 percent of CPS schools that have half-day or no kindergarten programs.

According to a CPS teacher who blogs at CPS Chatter, all-day kindergarten at her school means the school will lose four classrooms, likely including the music room and art room, and possible driving class sizes up as high as 38.


If the timing of this decision were being driven by what’s best for the children and the schools — rather than the timing of the next mayoral election — there would be lots of reasons to step back and get things right.

And once again, the utilization commission wants to have it both ways, noting that “a variety of stakeholders — including communities, the CTU, newspapers, parents, families, academics, and others — who argue that CPS should delay closings for a year or more, using the extra time to do more planning and more community engagement.

“In a perfect world, CPS would have a district-wide master plan that included a detailed look at necessary capital investments before it tried to take on school closures, and would indeed take time to plan every detail of a school action.”

It doesn’t explain why that’s not advisable.

It also calls for considering anticipated demographic changes, noting that the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning predicts the Chicago area will grow by more than two million people by 2040.

“The utilization formula is a snapshot, and doesn’t account for demographic change over time.  While the majority of schools are in neighborhoods where populations are decreasing, it will be important to look on a block-by-block basis to identify potential changes that might alter the demographics of a school.

“In particular, we encourage CPS to work closely with the CHA and city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development to identify developments or other investments that might overwhelm what is currently a well-utilized school, or move an underutilized school into efficient areas.”

Funny, that kind of intergovernmental consultation is just what’s mandated by the state legislation requiring the facility plan.  And it doesn’t seem like something that can be done in a few weeks.


CPS says it must move in order to more focus classroom resources more effectively.  It’s not clear what that means, however.

It probably means larger class sizes in the low-income communities where the closings are targeted — and where small class sizes are considered particularly valuable.

It could mean two schools with half-time art teachers become one school with a full-time art teacher, but no art room.  The art teacher takes a cart from room to room — art on a cart, it’s called.

“I would think you’d want to have a sink handy if you’re doing art,” said Yurko.  “Or you can dumb down the programming because you don’t have the capacity to teach painting.”



Fuzzy math: the CPS budget crisis

The charter contradiction

Closing schools without a plan Sat, 12 Jan 2013 04:07:52 +0000 With the school utilization commission issuing an interim report – and schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett responding to a parents group’s inquiry about school closings – the task force created last year by the legislature to monitor school facilities policy in Chicago is holding the first of four community hearings on Saturday.

The Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force hearing takes place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, January 12 at the New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, 4301 W. Washington.

While it’s likely to provide a forum for wide-ranging community concerns about CPS school closing plans, the hearing is focused on gathering public input for the draft ten-year facilities master plan that’s due May 1.

As mandated by the legislature, that process is supposed to include input from every school in the district on its long-term educational vision and facility needs.  But CPS has yet to unveil any plans to engage school communities in the process, said Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together, chair of CEFTF’s master planning committee.

That could be because CPS is focused on announcing a huge wave of school closings – before a long-term plan is done.

Community members “have told the task force that doing more school closings and drastic interventions before there’s a long-range plan in place is ‘putting the cart before the horse’ and just doesn’t make sense,” Carroll said.


In its interim report, the school utilization commission appointed by Byrd-Bennett in December calls on CPS to spare high-scoring and improving schools with low enrollments.  And in order to reduce the risk of violent incidents, it calls for no closings of high schools.

Whether CPS would get around this by phasing out high schools rather than closing them outright remains to be seen.  Phaseouts greatly diminish the experience of remaining students, according to recent testimony from students at Dyett High School, and new students would still be required to travel to unfamiliar neighborhoods.

The commission promises to look further into a range of issues: whether CPS is appropriately accounting for “ancillary” uses of classrooms; whether annexes could be closed in order to bring utilization rates up; how CPS plans to dispose of vacant property; and even whether CPS is accurately counting the number of rooms in its buildings.

The commission will meet with eight CPS community action councils.  And responding to the commission’s request, CPS has announced it will hold two dozen community meetings to discuss specific schools threatened with closing.

The report endorses the rationale for closing schools, which many critics have challenged, and even seems to high-ball the estimate for savings from closing schools.  According to the commission’s report, a Pew Trusts analysis found “districts usually realize less than $1 million in annual savings for each closed school in the short term.”

In fact the report says that average annual savings are “well under $1 million,” and gives figures for four districts, none of which comes close to $1 million.

CPS has publicly said it expects annual savings of $500,000 to $800,000 for each closed school.  But in a planning document disclosed by the Chicago Tribune last month, CPS gave a much lower range — $140,000 to $675,00 per school annually, including capital and operating costs.   That’s if it succeeds in selling nearly half those buildings, a goal which the Pew report suggests is impractical.

Meanwhile costs associated with closings for transition costs – severance pay, transportation, security – are estimated at $155 million to $450 million, enough to wipe out most and possibly all of ten years of savings from closing 100 schools.

In other stories CPS has projected saving as much as $2.5 billion by avoiding deferred maintenance on old buildings, but that’s a little hard to credit when the district also plans to open 100 new schools.

So perhaps a hard, realistic look at CPS’s projected savings – rather than a vague wave at a national study – is called for.


The commission rejects concerns from Raise Your Hand and other parent groups over how CPS measures school utilization.

The report seems to reflect some confusion over classroom sizes for special education students, suggesting that the limit of 13 students per room applies only to 14 schools that are fully dedicated to special education.  The commission does not seem to understand the difference between resource classrooms used for pull-out sessions and self-contained classrooms used for full instructional programs for students with disabilities within neighborhood schools, Rod Estvan of Access Living has commented.

According to the report, the upcoming phase of the commission’s inquiry will ask, “Does CPS have sufficient capacity to close multiple schools in one year safely and efficiently?”

That’s a question the Sun Times has asked, noting that “even under the best of circumstances, CPS rarely pull off a complex task well.”  The concern is underscored by a recent exchange between Raise Your Hand and Byrd-Bennett.

Raise Your Hand asks about its contention that the district’s utilization formula exaggerates the number of “empty seats,” and whether CPS is considering adjusting it.  Byrd-Bennett says no; the number of “empty seats” is based on “ideal capacity” of 30 kids per room, not the upper limit of efficient utilization.

Asked about special ed and bilingual students, Byrd-Bennett seems to implicitly acknowledge that the one-size-fits-all standard for non-homeroom uses penalizes schools with larger populations of special needs students.  She says CPS is “willing to work with the principals of underutilized schools to ensure that we understand any unique situations.”


Finally, asked when she will “provide an analysis of the specific impact of last year’s 17 school actions on the 7,700 effected students,” Byrd-Bennett replies, “we are only halfway through the school year, and a true picture of these schools won’t be complete until the end of the school year.”

For months CEFTF has been requesting information on how transitions were planned and implemented for schools that were closed and subjected to other actions.  In August, according to task force records, CPS was unable to even identify which staff had led transition planning.  CPS has also been unable to identify which schools students ended up attending.

The new facilities law requires CPS to identify and commit specific resources for the first full year of transition to support the academic, social and emotional needs of students.  But for hundreds of homeless students impacted by the closings, support services that should have been provided for the entire year were available one day a week for the first few weeks of the school year.

And that effort seems to have been focused on making sure students’ records made their way to their new schools.

By law, parents were supposed to have to opportunity to visit receiving schools and alternatives.  How many did?  CPS can’t say.

CEFTF wants a full evaluation of what planning was done, how parents were informed of their options, what support was given students and where they ended up.  CPS has been unable to provide this.

Byrd-Bennett is content to wait until the end of the year, when test scores are available, to get an idea of how 7,700 student have fared. In the meantime, she wants to put 35,000 students through school closings, hoping for the best.

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The charter contradiction Thu, 03 Jan 2013 22:58:31 +0000 Barbara Byrd-Bennett talks about reestablishing trust between CPS and parents and communities – then she turns around and says that closing neighborhood schools has nothing to do with expanding charters.

Since nobody believes that, continuing to repeat it doesn’t seem like a very good way for the new CPS chief to build trust.

Recent revelations by the Chicago Tribune show that the rhetorical disconnect between school closings and charter openings is part of a conscious political strategy.

A CPS document — which “lays out multiple scenarios for closing neighborhood schools and opening privately-run charters,” according to the Tribune — notes the main contradiction in the administration’s claim that closings are necessary due to underutilization and budget constraints: big plans to open scores of new charter schools.

This “core prong of CPS’s academic improvement strategy” – charter expansion – creates a “perceived inconsistency,” according to the document. Therefore large-scale charter expansion must be held off until after large-scale neighborhood school closings are accomplished.

Indeed, the problem is that charter expansion reveals that closing schools isn’t at all about “right-sizing” or saving money – it’s all about privatization.


Byrd-Bennett has emphasized that the September 10 document – and specifically its “pre-decisional discussion” of closing 95 schools, mainly on the South and West Sides – predates her administration.  Byrd-Bennett was chief education officer at the time; she was named CEO a month later.

But Byrd-Bennett’s first proposal, a five-year moratorium on school closings, comes straight out of the September 10 document, according to the Tribune.

Besides helping to sell the legislature on an extension of the deadline for announcing school closings, the document shows, the moratorium has the political utility of creating a sense of separation between school closings and charter openings.

The document reveals a highly politicized approach to implementing school policy – a hallmark of the Emanuel administration, which has seen paid protestors and huge media campaigns attacking teachers.  The document proposes establishing a ‘war room” to monitor community opposition to closings, and outlines possible steps to push back against that opposition.

“Community engagement” is just another strategy to try to disarm the opposition.

And while Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett use their new administrations as political cover, claiming a disconnect with previous policies, another Tribune story shows the continuity of the current administration’s agenda with nearly two decades of failed school policies.


It turns out the “independent” commission appointed by Byrd-Bennett to get community input on school closings is being staffed by consultants with long ties to charter boosters.

The Civic Consulting Alliance, an offshoot of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, is advising the commission but not advocating for charters, the group’s executive director told the Tribune.

The Civic Committee itself, of course, is a major charter school backer.  The group was behind CPS’s Renaissance 2010 program and founded New Schools for Chicago in 2004 to promote and finance charter expansion.  CCA’s role in promoting charter schools goes back further.

According to a CCA promotional brochure, the group “played a major role” in the 1995 transition to mayoral control over CPS.  Ten years later, “CCA worked with the Civic Committee in helping to launch Renaissance 2010, an unprecedented effort to open 100 new charter, contract and performance schools.”  The other part of Ren10’s agenda was the goal of closing 60 “failing” schools.

Ironically, two Civic Committee reports – Left Behind (2003) and Still Left Behind (2009) – obliterated administration claims of progress at CPS in the late ’90s and under Renaissance 2010.  (The solution, according to both reports, was more charters.)

CCA has consulted for the city and its agencies on hundreds of projects and assisted CPS with a range of management issues.  Along the way it helped lay the groundwork for charter schools’ entry into Chicago.


§ In 1995, CCA helped CPS develop the process for launching charters, including the application process, financing, selection and startup.

§ In 2004, CCA produced a business plan for New Schools for Chicago, which calls itself “the catalyst of the charter movement in Chicago.”

§ In 2005, CCA developed the RFP process for CPS’s Office of New Schools to solicit charter proposals.  (Yes, all those level-3, non-performing charters were vetted under a process developed by CCA.)


More recently the group helped CPS analyze the teachers contract – and recruited a Fortune 500 executive with no education experience to oversee school closings and charter openings for CPS.

Now Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett pretend they’re doing something new and urgent.  The reality is that instead of closing 60 schools and opening 100 charters, like Renaissance 2010 did, they want to close 100 schools and open 60 charters, as promised in the Gates Compact.

When Emanuel says, speaking of the need to close schools, that “over the years, what could have been done over a decade…was not done, it was all postponed,” what is he talking about?  Where has he been?

If Byrd-Bennett is serious about restoring trust – if it’s not just yet another talking point – stopping this kind of game-playing would be a good first step.

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More questions: charters, partners, and planning Wed, 19 Dec 2012 15:35:27 +0000 (This is the second of two posts – part one looks at questions for the Commission on School Utilization including enrollment numbers and savings from closing schools.)


Mayor Emanuel, CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and utilization commission chair Frank Clark have taken the position that “right-sizing” the district has nothing to do with the district’s expansion of charter schools.

One has to do with declining enrollment and snowballing deficits, the other with choice and quality, according to this view.

The argument would work better if CPS’s enrollment and utilization numbers held up; if school closings actually saved significant amounts of money; and if charters consistently offered quality rather than undermining most parents’ first choice – a quality neighborhood school.

Even then, though, it’s hard to separate the proliferation of charters from enrollment declines at neighborhood schools.

[Based on revelations in Tuesday’s Tribune, the separation of school closings and charter expansions is purely strategic; when officials say they are unrelated, they are lying.]


A hundred new schools

In the past decade, as CPS lost 30,000 students, it’s opened more than 100 new schools with space for nearly 50,000 additional students, according to a new report from CTU.

While CPS closed scores of schools during that period, the number of schools in the district went from 580 to over 680.

“To the extent excess capacity exists, the main driver is the district’s aggressive charter proliferation campaign,” according to the report.  “The current ‘utilization crisis’ has been manufactured largely to justify the replacement of neighborhood schools by privatized charters.”

Throughout Renaissance 2010, “there was no facilities plan” and facilities decisions were “ad hoc and haphazard,” according to CTU’s report.  Adding to the confusion was the practice of approving charter schools without specifying their location, and some charters’ practice of repeatedly relocating their schools.

“CPS has opened charters haphazardly, without considering how they affect nearby schools,” according to a Sun Times editorial.

As Catalyst points out, new charter schools have been concentrated in the community areas with the largest number of schools listed as “underutilized” by CPS.  North Lawndale, with the most schools now rated as underutilized, has gotten more charter schools than any other community.

In general, those schools aren’t outperforming neighborhood schools, according to Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance.


A new round of failure

While school closings and new charter schools have been concentrated in low-income African American communities, these students are actually better served by neighborhood schools, according to CTU, citing reading score gains 10 percent higher in traditional schools than in charters in such areas.

Meanwhile students in closing schools have suffered mobility-related academic setbacks, faced transportation and security issues, and landed in worse-performing schools – while achievement rates in receiving schools have been adversely impacted.

It looks like the very students whom CPS has failed for a generation – whose schools have been systematically neglected and underresourced – are once again being failed.

“CPS has to look at the damage they’ve caused to children and communities and be honest about it.” said Rod Wilson, education organizer for KOCO, whose members recently sat in at Emanuel’s office demanding a moratorium on school closings.  “First they have to correct what they’ve already done, then they can start correcting the rest.”

“A school is a community institution, it’s not just a unit of production where you can close one and open another,” said Wilson.  “They’re just providing children to charter schools that are creaming and pushing children out.”

Meanwhile, as the utilization commission was holding community hearings on school closings, CPS was approving four more charters – on top of nine approved earlier this year.

At a recent commission hearing, many speakers – including the education chair of the local NAACP — noted that school closings have been concentrated in the black community.  Many spoke of “our schools” to distinguish them from charters, asking why “our schools” are being targeted.

Now it turns out, according to CTU, that the utilization commission is sharing office space with three pro-charter advocacy groups including New Schools Chicago.  (In the members’ biographies on the commission’s website, chairman Clark is identified as a founder of the Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy but – perhaps in order to build “trust” – the fact that it’s a charter school and part of the Noble Street network is omitted.)


Room for partners

At the commission hearing last Monday at St. Sabina’s, 19th ward Ald. Matt O’Shea testified against closing Esmond School, noting that its 40 percent utilization rate would go up if its1972 addition were closed.  The 40-year-old addition is in disrepair, O’Shea said, while the original 1891 building is “in pretty good shape.”

How many of the 140 schools listed as eligible for closure due to underenrollment, O’Shea asked, have annexes that could be closed?  Before the commission starts recommending wholesale school closures, it should look at closing secondary buildings, he said.

Austin schools activist Dwayne Truss of Progressive Action Coalition for Education makes the same point.  “A lot of schools out here have one or two additional buildlings,” he said.

Indeed, hundreds of CPS schools have had annexes added in recent years. Many of these buildings would be perfect to house a range of the administration’s initiatives, such as early education and community college programming.

Extra space in schools could be productively used to support the newly-announced reinvigoration of the district’s highly successful Child-Parent Centers, or to replicate successful programs like school-based health clinics or community schools, which bring in community partners to offer after-school enrichment for children and ESL, GED, and computer classes for adults.

“Across the country, school districts are increasing utilization of their buildings by extending access to non-school users,” according to a report on joint use by the 21st Century School Fund.  Public agencies and nonprofit partners are offering program that extend schools’ curricular goals, address social, emotional, and health barriers to success in school, and help families provide more educational support at home.

In a school district struggling to meet parents’ demands for arts programming with a longer day, or to provide enough social workers and other support staff to deal with problems like truancy, extra space could make possible partnerships with the city’s many arts and social service agencies.

Indeed, it’s in the low-income communities with some of the higher rates of underutilization that these needs are greatest.

There are many challenges to managing such partnerships, according to the report, but some districts are succeeding at it.  Among the possible benefits:  “When school buildings are underutilized, a paying joint-use arrangement with either public or prviate partners can make continued operation of the school building fiscally possible.”


No plan

The large number of annexes in school buildings also demonstrates the need for long-range planning, said CTU researcher Sarah Hainds. In some cases, because it takes years to for approval and construction of such projects, additional buildings intended to ease overcrowding opened after school enrollments started going down, she said.

That’s because school facilities decisions in Chicago are made ad hoc and in response to political pressure, not based on any kind of plan, she said.

Earlier this year CPS officials said they hoped for early release of a ten-year facilities master plan, whichwas due in January under 2011 school facilities reform legislation.  But when Byrd-Bennett came in, she said the district needed more time, and a bill extending the deadline for announcing school actions also extended the deadline for the ten-year plan.

A master plan “would give us an opportunity to look at population projections, housing development, long-term factors” that will impact enrollment down the road, said Cecile Carroll of Blocks Together, chair of the master plan subcommittee of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force.  “But these are things CPS doesn’t want us talking about before they close schools,” she said.

Instead, CPS wants to shut 100 schools based solely on this year’s census and enrollment figures.

“I can’t believe they want to close all these schools without any kind of plan,” said Hainds.

Carroll suspects that doing ten-year projections would show that large-scale school closings are ill-advised.  And she worries that CPS sees the ten-year plan as merely a means to “right-size” the district without “a forward-looking strategy for sustaining and improving neighborhood schools.”

CPS wanted to put the draft plan’s deadline back to October, but the final bill gives them until May 1.  That means – if CPS meets its legal obligation — some kind of long-term plan will be on the table after school actions are announced but before the board can vote on them.

Carroll said there’s little transparency around the planning process, indeed little indication that it is underway.  For one thing, outreach to principals and LSCs – whose input with educational visions and long-term facility assessments for their schools is required by the facilities law – hasn’t taken place.


Time to wait?

Grassroots activists maintain the CPS should put school actions on hold until it’s developed a long-range facilities plan.  CTU has called for a year-long moratorium; KOCO has called for two years.

The Sun Times has called for waiting a year to “right-size” the district, based largely on eminently practical considerations: “There is no way CPS can humanely right-size its district, closing dozens of schools in just a few months….

“Even under the best circumstances, CPS rarely pulls off a complex task well.  We’re talking about relocating thousands of children and teachers, finding new schools for them, ensuring their safety and well-being.  The odds of that happening successfully in a matter of months are extremely low.”

In addition, the district is required to hold three hearings for each school action it proposes – that would be 300 hearings for 100 closings in little over a month — and school board members are expected to consider that testimony.  And the deadline for schools that require applications – a major reason the legislature pushed the deadline for school action announcements to December last year – has come and gone.

Will the commission consider the option, widely backed among informed observers, of waiting for a long-range plan before implementing whole-sale school closures?  Or are they just expected to collect community input, ignore it, and deliver a list of schools to axe?  Is this an “independent commission,” or is this a done deal?

There’s a larger picture:  school closings are happening in urban school districts across the country.  According to Diane Ravitch, districts like New York’s are “repeating the pattern that was established in Chicago.”

The idea of closing schools to improve education was also embodied in the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law, which mandated sanctions for low test scores.

The original rationale for closing schools came from the business world:  the way to improve education, it was argued, is to subject eductors to rewards and punishment based on standardized tests.  That logic hasn’t been validated by Chicago’s experience.

And while this year there’s a brand new rationale, presented with all the theatrics of an imminent crisis, the policy is the same.

Behind school closings, Ravitch writes, is “the dynamic of privatization: as public schools close, privately-managed charters open, accelerating the destruction of neighborhoods and public education.”

At WBEZ, Becky Vevea points out that if the district closes 100 neighborhood schools and opens 60 charters, the proportion of privately-operated charters in the system will double — to more than a quarter of CPS schools – dramatically reshaping the district.

Is this a decision the public gets to weigh in on?

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Questions for the commission: enrollment, finances Wed, 19 Dec 2012 01:56:42 +0000 There’s an awful lot of confusion around the CPS’s new commission on school utilization.

There’s confusion over administration claims of an enrollment crisis, as WBEZ has detailed – and, as at least one CPS official has acknowledged, there are strikingly different ways of estimating the number of “empty seats.”  There’s confusion on the part of parents and educators testifying before the commission with no idea whether their schools are threatened, as the Tribune notes.

There’s confusion on whether CPS’s five-year moratorium on school closings only covers school closings due to underutilization; whether a shelved-for-now plan to have charters take over neighborhood schools will be revived; how much money closing schools really saves; and, especially, just why CPS continues to roll out new charters while citing enrollment declines and budget deficits to insist on closing neighborhood schools.

There’s also widespread confusion over just how independent this “independent commission” is.

Even among the people naming and chairing the commission, there’s confusion.  CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett says the purpose is to come up with a list of schools to close; commission chair Frank Clark has repeatedly promised only a “broad set of recommendations” for how to address the issue.

In one recent Tribune article, Byrd-Bennett said she’s expecting a list of schools to close from the commission, and CPS spokesperson Becky Carroll said it’s “up to them [the commissioners] – we don’t know at this point” what they’ll recommend.

Behind the commission’s charge is a lot of talk, especially from Byrd-Bennett, about restoring trust.  But merely delivering a list of school closings —  without taking seriously widespread concerns about the assumptions behind CPS’s policy of closing schools — will just engender more cynicism.

Is the commission going to acknowledge and address serious questions about CPS’s facilities policies, or is it just providing political cover for a foregone conclusion?


A rapidly shrinking crisis

“The accuracy of how CPS calculates school utilization” is one of the “key issues the commission must consider,” according to a Sun Times editorial last month.

Indeed.  In  mid-October, Mayor Emanuel was saying there are 200,000 “empty seats” in CPS – 600,000 seats for 400,000 students; by the end of October, the crisis had eased by half, with only 100,000 empty seats out of 500,000 total.

Maybe there was a rush sale of classroom chairs?

Then new census numbers were rolled out, with CPS touting Chicago’s loss of 145,000 school-age children over the past decade.  But CTU pointed out that CPS’s actual enrollment had declined by just 31,500 in that period – during which CPS added 50,000 new seats, mainly in charter schools.

It’s simple, according to WBEZ: a higher proportion of Chicago’s kids are attending CPS than ten years ago.  (Among other factors, this could reflect the closing of scores of Catholic schools and lower dropout rates.)  But it’s a lot less dire.

Meanwhile, Jeanne Marie Olson, a CPS parent and systems analyst who’s part of the Raise Your Hand coalition, dug into the school utilization formula, which identifies underutilized schools and is behind estimates of “empty seats.”

She points out that the range considered “efficient enrollment” takes CPS’s recommended maximum number of students per class as the midpoint, and extends it by 20 percent in either direction.  So enrollment at a school with 36 students in each classroom – 20 percent higher than the district’s class size policy recommends, and wildly imappropriate, for elementary schools particularly – is considered “efficient.”

(Chicago has the largest class sizes in Illinois, which is one of a minority of states without legal class size limits; but a class size targets as high as 36 is remarkable even among big-city districts.  New York City has a “target capacity” of 20 students in K-3 classrooms; and instead of CPS’s range of 80 to 120 percent, New York’s “programming efficiency” range is 75 to 90 percent, giving a “standard classroom potential capacity” for those grades of 15 to 18 students.  In CPS the range is 24 to 36.)


How many “empty seats,” really?

Recalculating enrollment levels for elementary schools using the CPS maximum as the top number for efficient enrollment, Olson found far more overcrowded schools and far fewer with underenrollment.

With an efficiency range reflecting class size policy, she found, the number of underutilized elementary schools drops from 50 percent to 38 percent; more significantly, the number of elementary  schools at less than 50 percent underutilization – the point where school closings are considered —  drops from 20 percent to just 8 percent.

And instead of 62,695 “empty seats,” there are just 7,467.

So with a more realistic and humane utilization standard, we could be looking not at 100,000 “empty seats” but something closer to 15,000 district-wide.  [A new analysis by RYH puts the total district-wide number at 25,000.] This “crisis” seems to fade by the week.

At a hearing of the General Assembly’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force where Olson presented her findings last week, CPS business operations manager James Dispensa argued that the space utilization formula doesn’t correlate to class size and is designed instead to reflect how resources are allocated to schools.

He pointed out that one problem with underutilized schools is that, because they lose staffing positions with enrollment, they tend to have overcrowded classrooms.

Olson argued that class size issues are central to space utilization, since the district’s formula is based on the number of kids per homeroom.

At the hearing, CPS public affairs director Michael Rendina said that perhaps the space utilization formula needed to be adjusted.

For many months, the legislature’s facilities task force has been arguing that the district’s space utilization formula doesn’t meet the requirements of the 2011 facilities reform law, mandating consideration of age and grade, educational program, and uses by after-school programs and public and community agencies.

But Substance reports that at one hearing, Commissioner Terrence Hilliard revealed that he hadn’t heard of the task force.  This is quite remarkable.

CEFTF has been doing research, holding public hearings, and engaging CPS for a couple of years.  It has raised a series of concerns about CPS’s failure to abide by the 2011 law – for one thing, its inability to monitor the impact ofthe most recent school actions on 7,700 affected students.  Hopefully commission members will acquaint themselves with this work.

They may not want to rely solely on State Senator Iris Martinez, a member of both the commission and the task force, however: she recently was reported reciting CPS talking points about census figures and empty seats.  These are among the assumptions that need to be examined.

At its most recent hearing, CEFTF co-chair State Representative Cynthia Soto announced plans to hold monthly “Second Saturday” community hearings to give LSCs a chance to testify on utilization and facilities issues – including cases where CPS school utilization reports have faulty data.


What savings?

Another essential task for the Commission on School Utilization, according to the Sun Times, is to “verify CPS’s estimates of school-closing savings.”  Indeed, there’s a good bit of confusion around this.

CPS says they’ll save $500,000 to $800,000 for each school they close.  Where do the savings come from?  District spokesperson Becky Carroll told Sarah Karp of Catalyst that “savings generally come from eliminating those positions that go with the building itself – a principal, clerk, maybe custodian. Other savings generally come from reduced utility, maintenance and repairs costs.”

But the Rosalind Rossi reports at the Sun Times, “To achieve any savings, Carroll said, closed buildings would have to be leased out or sold.”  In fact, that’s been the experience of other districts.

As Karp points out, “selling buildings has been a particular challenge as many times closed buildings are in poor neighborhoods where property values aren’t high. Also, vacant school buildings often don’t have other uses, and are expensive to tear down in order to repurpose the land.”

She cites a national study that found that school districts actually saved far less than they projected by closing schools; in some cases, savings were negligible.

According to a recent report from CEFTF’s long-range planning subcommittee, estimates of savings from school closings in Washington D.C. failed to take into account the costs of closings –costs including loss of property value, relocating or disposing of equipment, demolition or continuing maintenance of buildings, transportation for students, and displaced student services – costs which “negated DC Public School’s projections that school closings would save money.”

One theme at the Clark commission hearing last week at St. Sabina’s is that neighborhoods already struggling with abandoned homes don’t need the hulking eyesores of abandoned school buildings.


Parking meters redux?

Closed schools won’t go to charters because they’ll be sold or leased, according to Byrd-Bennett.  But with social services struggling, Catholic schools closing, and a depressed housing market, it’s hard to picture a market for old school buildings – unless it’s a venture capital operation such as that floated two years ago by Bruce Rauner, Mayor Emanuel’s best billionaire buddy.  According to Greg Hinz, Rauner projected using private equity and debt to purchase 100 old schools and lease them back to charters.

If that’s the plan – public facilities sold to private parties and leased back to taxpayer-funded entities – we deserve to know about it now.  It sounds a lot like a recent parking meter deal.

Even in the unlikely event that CPS’s projections of savings came true, savings from 100 school closings would only reduce the district’s  operating budget by about 1 percent – or the $1 billion deficit by 5 to 8 percent.  (The real reduction savings would likely be half that or less.)

CPS’s budget crisis isn’t caused by overcapacity; it’s largely caused by the district’s failure to make contributions to its pension fund.  And “right-sizing” CPS will entail massive disruption and without getting the district anywhere near right-sizing its budget.


Part two examines charter expansion, community partners, and planning.

On school closings, a political ploy Wed, 28 Nov 2012 00:44:12 +0000 The promise of a five-year “moratorium” on school closings – “announced” by new CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and “endorsed” by Mayor Emanuel – has all the fingerprints of a master at political gamesmanship.

The Tribune is certainly right that the offer is intended “to help sell drastic school closings this year.”  And CTU financial secretary Kristine Mayle is certainly right that it’s intended to push the closings as far as possible from the 2015 mayoral election, as she tells the Sun Times.

It would also seem to take away a major issue that drives the grassroots school reform movement here, which is the biggest challenge to Emanuel’s domination.  It even co-opts their call for a moratorium.

But for all its political oomph, it’s lacking in other areas – including basic logic, as Julie Woestehoff of PURE points out.


If “chaotic, disorganized closings are such a bad idea,” as Emanuel said in backing the idea, why demand yet one more round of them before you agree to stop, she asks at PURE’s blog.  “It sounds as if the mayor is saying, ‘I promise to stop beating you after I get in this last round of punches.'”

She points out that parents have heard promises of community engagement time after time, and that the argument that school closings are necessary to close the district’s budget gap don’t measure up to reality (as Sarah Karp has detailed in Catalyst).

Byrd-Bennett’s insistence that the closing of 100 or so schools has nothing to do with the plan to open 60 new charters also strains credulity.

There are also basic practical and policy problems.  Most immediate is the problem of deadlines at schools that require applications. One reason the legislature imposed the December 1 deadline for announcing school actions was to allow parents to consider those options.

Is CPS going to push the application deadline back to May, after the board votes on 100 school closings?  When are parents going to find out where their kids are going next year?  How much uncertainty and confusion is going to flow from this purely political edict?

Then there’s the utilization standard that CPS uses, which is deeply flawed. If the new commission studying that issue were to come up with meaningful reforms, they would take more than a few weeks to implement – though they could provide a much more accurate picture of the district’s building use.

On top of that, CPS is asking the state legislature to move back the January deadline for a draft of a ten-year facilities master plan – so the wholesale closing of 100 or more schools would be done with no assessment of the future needs of the school districts or the communities being impacted.


Today CPS claims it has 100,000 “empty seats.”  A year ago the figure was 80,000; a year before that, 230,000.   It all depends where you set the “data point.”

Compared to other school districts, CPS’s method of measuring utilization is “really rudimentary,” indeed, “almost primitive,” said Mary Filardo, a school facilities expert with the 21st Century Schools Fund who works with districts around the country.  She’s also a pro-bono consultant with the state legislature’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force.

At CPS, someone downtown fills in the number of classrooms and the number of students.  One-quarter of a school’s classrooms are allowed to be “ancillary” – going for “non-homeroom uses” like art, science or computer labs, recreation rooms if there’s no gym, and other purposes.  All the rest are expected to have 30 students. If it’s a kindergarten class with 21 students, those are nine “empty seats.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Filardo.  It doesn’t matter if the room actually has 18 pre-K students or if it’s a self-contained special ed room with five autistic students – those rooms have 12 and 25 “empty seats” respectively.  There’s no accounting for whether the school has a gym or lunchroom or playground, or whether a classroom converted to a science lab can fit the same number of bodies as a classroom full of desks.

[Indeed, the legislation governing utilization standards requires CPS to consider “the requirements of elementary and secondary programs, shared campuses, after-school programming, the facility needs, grade and age ranges of attending students, and use of school buildings by governmental agencies and community organizations.”  CPS’s standards do none of this; it’s not hard to see why CETF has charged that CPS isn’t meeting the requirements of the law.]

Other districts have “far more sophisticated” approaches to utilization, she said, accounting for how each room is being used. Some districts even have standards that provide for smaller class sizes in high-poverty schools, which is what research recommends.

New York City publishes a detailed report on utilization in its 1,500 schools every year.  (“It’s important to understand that a building’s capacity changes” as grade configurations and programs shift, Filardo points out. “Capacity is a function of programming.”)  It’s based on surveys by principals who report the function of each room in the building.  Capacity is calculated differently by grade, room size, and program use.

If CPS were to shift to a utilization standard that better measures capacity – which it should – it would take more than three months to design and implement.

Filardo has a very general, big-picture measure of CPS’s overall capacity (you can find it in CETF’s final report):  Chicago has 624 school buildings with a total of roughly 60 million square feet.  With 400,000 students, that’s about 96 square feet per student.

That’s far below what’s found in other districts, where the national averages range from a low of 125 square feet per student in elementary schools to 156 in the top 25 percent; in high schools, where class sizes are larger but programming more varied, it’s even higher, ranging from 156 square feet per student to 185 in the top quadrant.

It might be time to take another look at this year’s mantra of “100,000 empty seats.”


The Raise Your Hand coalition just unveiled a data base on elementary schools which reveals that 76 percent of CPS elementary schools have at least one overcrowded classroom.

Principals and LSCs have been doing “walkthroughs” to check on CPS utilization reports for their schools, and many are reporting that CPS didn’t even get the number of rooms in the school right, according to Jackie Leavy, an adviser for CETF and longtime community activist.

“We found several schools listed as underutilized that had overcrowded classrooms,” said Lashawn Brown of CPS’s South Shore Community Advisory Council.  One school that had very low teacher-student ratios on the state report card had 44 kids in a third grade class, she said.

She said principals sometimes accept larger class sizes as the price of an additional art or music teacher.

“I really believe schools should have a chance to have art and music and computer labs,” Brown said.  Determining utilization “needs to be a more thoughtful process that focuses on the children and their needs.”

Dwayne Truss of the Austin CAC did walkthroughs at five Austin elementary schools and writes at Austin Talks that he found many CPS utilization reports that “contained inaccurate data.”

One issue he raises: schools in low-income areas get federal Title 1 funds, and principals can elect to use them to reduce class sizes.  Under CPS’s utilization formula, their buildings are rated educationally “inefficient.”

“With CPS’ formula of 30 children per classroom, is CPS stating that using Title 1 funds to reduce class size in [schools] serving students from impoverished, high crime, high unemployment communities a ‘bad thing?'” he asks. These schools are most definitely using their space effectively, he insists.

One school he visited, Mays Elementary, makes full educational use of the “ancillary” classrooms its allotted by CPS.  In addition, six rooms are used by the YMCA for an after-school program, which serves 175 kids.  (Such use by community agencies to bring services and provide enrichment in underserved communities is “a best practice,” Leavy said.)

Figure in the six rooms for the after-school program and Mays’ space utilization rate goes from 45 percent to 54 percent, even by CPS’s broad standard of 30 students in a class.  In reality, class sizes at Mays range from 18 in Kindergarten to 32 in 8th grade.  Scores at Mays have been rising steadily, in some subjects dramatically, over several years.


Austin has been hit hard by foreclosures, but Truss insists the neighborhood is “going to come back.”  That’s another problem: making permanent facility decisions under the spur of an immediate financial crisis and absent any long-range planning.

“Planning is a really critical part of budgeting and particularly in making infrastructure decisions,” said Filardo.  “If you’re going to close something permanently, that’s a long-term judgment, and you want to have a plan.”

Instead CPS has dragged its feet on drafting a ten-year facilities master plan, and is now asking the legislature to postpone the due date.

Filardo said the school facility reform legislation mandating the ten-year plan required intergovernmental and inter-agency collaboration, which she calls crucial.  “Municipal planning and educational planning really need to be linked,” she said.

“The neighborhoods where they are closing schools are going to come back from the foreclosure crisis; there’s going to be infill development in the neighborhoods where public housing was demolished,” said Leavy.  “Nothing is as constant in Chicago as neighborhood change.”

She points to one of the first schools CPS closed ten years ago and one of the few to be demolished: Jacob Riis Elementary, just west of UIC.  “Today there’s all kinds of development going on there.”

“Tearing down a school costs tens of millions of dollars because they were so well built in the 1920s, and it’s going to cost way more than that to build the new school you’re going to need to serve that redevelopment,” she said.  School construction costs have risen dramatically in the past two decades.

“There are lots of way to be penny wise and pound foolish,” she said. One is “making public policy for the short term.”

And, she points out, “the idea that ‘right-sizing the district’ is going to be some kind of fiscal magic bullet has not been proven at all….Other urban districts haven’t saved a lot of money” by closing schools.  (In Washington D.C., Karp reports, school closings actually  produced no savings.)

“Responsible use of public assets and taxpayer money needs to be based on facts,” she said.

Under Emanuel, a politically-driven, needlessly adversarial drive for a longer school day left lots of confusion and little space for collaboration and planning over the past year, and ultimately led to Chicago’s first school strike in 25 years.  Top-down political domination of the school district has led to shifting personnel throughout the CPS administration and “chaos on Clark Street.”

Now a political drive to remove legal protections for school communities and schoolchildren – 30,000 of whom could be affected if 100 schools are closed – threatens more chaos, with decisions based on flawed data, and with no consideration given to long-term impacts.

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