Raise Your Hand Coalition – Chicago Newstips by Community Media Workshop http://www.newstips.org Chicago Community Stories Mon, 19 Feb 2018 15:45:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.4.14 Alternatives to school cuts http://www.newstips.org/2013/06/alternatives-to-school-cuts/ http://www.newstips.org/2013/06/alternatives-to-school-cuts/#comments Wed, 19 Jun 2013 22:32:17 +0000 http://www.newstips.org/?p=7539 Just a month ago — when they were intent on closing 50 schools — the watchword at CPS was “quality education.”

“What we must do is ensure that the resources that some kids get, all kids get,” said Barbara Byrd-Bennett in an internet ad funded by the right-wing Walton Family Foundation.  “And these resources include libraries and access to technology and science labs and art classrooms….

“And with our consolidations we’re able to guarantee that our children will get what they need and what they deserve.”

That was then.

Raise Your Hand has released a very partial list of budget cuts faced by schools under the district’s new per-pupil funding system, and it’s impressive:

Goethe, Jamieson, Kozmisky, Sutherland, each will lose between $250,000 and $300,000.  Audobon, Belden, Gale, Grimes Fleming, and Ray, between $400,000 and $500,000.  Bell, Darwin Mitchell, Murphy, Suder, Sullivan High, betweeen $700,000 and $800,000.  Gage Park High, Lincoln Park High, Mather Elementary, Roosevelt High, $1 million or thereabouts.  Foreman High, $1.7 million.

CTU reports that Taft High School faces a $3 million cut.

According to Wendy Katten of RYH, every school they’ve contacted faces budget cuts.  So far they have figures from about 10 percent of CPS schools, and the cuts total about $45 million, she said.  (CTU budget analyst Kurt Hilgendorf said the union has requested district-wide figures on cuts but CPS has declined to supply them.)

“It’s horrific,” she said.  “There are terrible losses.”

It also clearly contravene’s Byrd-Bennett’s promise about what school consolidations would accomplish.

Losing library access

Two high schools,Von Steuben and Lincoln Park,  are reported to be considering laying off librarians — at Von Steuben it would mean no open-access library; at Lincoln Park, the library would remain open part of the school day but not after school — but many more principals are being forced to choose between staffing their libraries and having enough teachers.

At many schools it will mean  eliminating art or music.  At Katten’s son’s school, it looks like art will be eliminated and physical education will be staffed by a part-time teacher — which means gym just twice a week, far below the state requirement.

Funding for enrichment programming as part of the longer school day trumpeted by Emanuel last year is being eliminated.  At many schools, “the longer day is not going to be very enriching,” Katten said.

And many schools will be forced to lay off teachers and increase class sizes.  Audubon Elementary, losing $400,000, is considering laying off as many as six teachers, which will raise class sizes to 37 to 45, according to DNA Info.  Sullivan High is considering laying off seven teachers; Kelly High could lose ten or fifteen.

CPS’s per-pupil funding system, touted as a boon to principal autonomy, has turned out to be yet another way to remove resources from neighborhood schools.

It’s as if Emanuel thought he could cut his way to better schools.

TIF squads

And while the city’s elite clearly prefers budget cuts and layoffs to deal with CPS’s financial troubles, parents and teachers see another way.

Raise Your Hand is organizing “TIF squads” in every ward to compile the details of how schools are being affected.  They’ll use the information to impress individual aldermen with the necessity of declaring a TIF surplus and returning funds to CPS.

“We need a long-term sustainable solution at the state level, but parents refuse to accept these cuts now while the city is simultaneously handing out property tax money for projects like a $55-million DePaul stadium,” Katten said.

The group is holding an All South Side Schools meeting Thursday, June 20 at 7 p.m. at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5500 S. Woodlawn, to continue organizing.  Friday, June 21 at 10 a.m., they’re holding a parent rally against cuts at the State of Illinois buildling, Randolph and Clark.

In the next year they’re among many groups planning a serious drive to fix Illinois’s regressive tax structure — a desperately needed reform to address school funding as well as the state’s fiscal crisis.  Will Emanuel and the school board join in?

Where the money is

In her City Club address Tuesday, CTU president Karen Lewis outlined a series of revenue measures that would tap into the vast wealth generated by the financial sector and restore a measure of balance to the tax system — and financial stability to governing bodies.

“The CTU wants to work with our leaders in City Hall, Springfield and at the board to solve these sorts of problems,” she said. “We can’t work together on these issues because they keep creating new problems.”

Instead of sharply dividing the city with his campaign of school closings — which had virtually no impact on CPS’s fiscal problems — Emanuel could “take a holistic approach” and work with all stakeholders for basic changes that would really make a difference, Hilgendorf said.

One example:  CTU backed legislation in the spring session that would close three corporate tax loopholes that bring no economic benefit and cost the state $445 million a year.  It died in committee.

And while everyone’s attention and energy was absorbed by school closings, nothing got done on CPS’s pension crisis.

But at least we’re seeing progress on building a new stadium for DePaul.


At the Campaign for America’s Future, Richard Eskow promotes the new Education Declaration — which spells out what might be called real education reform — and provides an apt rundown of the modus operandus of “Michelle Rhee and Rahm Emanuel and the rest of their ilk, using the same playbook that’s been deployed against Social Security, Medicare and other vital government services. It goes like this:

1. Pretend that “budgets” are the real crisis – but never mention that corporations and the wealthy are paying less in taxes than ever before in modern history.

2. Make scapegoats of innocent people to draw attention away from yourselves. For Social Security they’ve attacked “greedy geezers,” but it’s hard to come up with a catchy equivalent for kids. (“Insatiable imps”? “Avaricious anklebiters”?) So they vilify teachers instead.

3. Sell a fantasy which says that the private sector can do more, with less money, than government can.  (Never, never mention that private insurance provides far less healthcare than public insurance, at much higher cost. And don’t bring up the mess privatization’s made of prisons and other government services.)

4. Find a name that doesn’t use words like “money-making.” How about “charter schools”?

5. Describe yourselves as “reformers” – rather than, say, “demolishers.” That’s why “entitlement reform” is used as a euphemism for cutting Social Security and Medicare. (Michelle Rhee even called her autobiography “Radical.” Apparently “Shameless” was taken.)

6. Employ the political and media elite’s fascination with (and poor understanding of) numbers. Suggest that “standardized” and “data-driven” programs will solve everything – without ever mentioning that the truly ideological decisions are made when you decide what it is you’re measuring.

7. Co-opt the elite media into supporting your artificial description of the problem, as well as your entirely self-serving solution.

8. Use your money to co-opt politicians from both parties so you can present your agenda as “bipartisan” – a word which means you can “buy” a few “partisans” from both sides.

“It shouldn’t be surprising that all these attacks share a common playbook. The money’s coming from the same pockets, and for the same reasons: so they can keep their own taxes low – and make money from the privatization schemes.”


Updated: A sentence with an inaccurate statement regarding the impact on selective enrollment schools was removed.

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Better schools? http://www.newstips.org/2013/04/better-schools/ Sun, 14 Apr 2013 21:28:15 +0000 http://www.newstips.org/?p=7118 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.

“Mass closings will lead to overcrowding and bigger class sizes,” according to Raise Your Hand.  “The numbers don’t work.

“Some receiving schools have told us they have no idea how 300 to 400 kids will fit in their building without class size going up to 40 or higher.

“Is this how we create better education for Chicago’s children?”

As Farmer recently pointed out, CPS schools are deemed underutilized if they have class sizes below 24 — and deemed “efficient” with class sizes up to 36 — but Emanuel’s children attend a private school where class sizes are capped at 23.

“It’s one thing to push class-size ‘efficiencies’ …on other people’s kids,” Farmer writes, “but don’t look for the mayor to urge those ‘reforms’ upon the folks at [the Lab School] anytime soon.”

Destabilizing schools in Bronzeville

In 2007, UIC researchers looked at the impact of school closings on receiving schools in Bronzeville.  By then, twelve schools had been closed in five years, many replaced by charters.  (Since then, seven more have been closed, with another five slated for closing this year.)

The Collaborative for Educational Justice and Equality at UIC’s College of Education found that the influx of new students disrupted school climate and slowed the pace of instruction.

Larger class sizes made all the issues more difficult to address, CEJE reported.

Administrators told CEJE their schools were forced to shift focus from academics to discipine.  There were more fights, lower achievement, increased truancy.  In 2006, a spate of newspaper articles highlighted escalating violence in schools receiving displaced students.

Teachers had to “back-track” to catch new students up.  Many continued to fall behind.  The new kids had trouble fitting in, had trouble concentrating, and were more disruptive, teachers said.

“You end up destabilizing the culture and ultimately the progress of each school,” said Rod Wilson, a community organizer with the Lugenia Burns Hope Center. Some of the best schools in the neighborhood never recovered, he told Newstips.

Fuller Elementary was a rising school when students from Donoghue were sent there in 2003, Wilson said. Achievement gains were reversed, and after five years on probation, the school was subjected to a “turnaround” last year.  Results from the latest intervention are not in yet.

Beethoven Elementary was one of 100 substantially-improved schools in a 1997 Designs For Change study that argued that local control was the best route for school improvement.  The school featured a Great Books program funded by the Annenberg Challenge.

In 2006, Beethoven took in students from Farren Elementary.  Now it’s in its third year on probation — and set to receive students from Attucks.

(Attucks is being phased out of a building it moved into in 2008, because repairs on its existing building were deemed too expensive — especially with CPS spending $6 million that summer for renovations to house a charter in a nearby school building — one that had been closed four years earlier because repairs there were deemed too expensive.)

“If you transfer a student from a low-income, highly segregated neighborhood school to another low-income, highly segregated school, it’s not the magic bullet that’s going to produce instant increases in academic performance,” Stephanie Farmer of CReATE told the Sun-Times.

Doubling down on segregation

CReATE cites a national study that found that school closings across the country have led to increased dropout rates and increased school violence, as disrupted relationships with adults and peers left students with fewer social and emotional supports to help them adjust to new schools.

While most closing and receiving schools in the CPS plan are low-income and racially isolated, Manierre stands out (as WBEZ has noted) because it’s surrounded by schools that are higher-performing and far more economically and socially diverse.

But its students are being sent to Jenner, which like Manierre is a Level-3 school that’s 95 percent low-income and 98 percent African American, and where the proportion of students meeting and exceeding state standards is in fact slightly lower than at Manierre.

Schools near Manierre include Newberry Math and Science, a Level-1 school with a 56 percent low-income, racially-mixed student body and, by CPS’s calculation, about 100 “empty seats”; Ogden International, a Level-1 school that’s 21 percent low-income and has an extra 100 spaces.

Also nearby is Skinner North, another top-level school with only 20 percent low-income students — and a utilization rate that’s actually lower than Manierre’s or Jenner’s.  According to CPS, Skinner North is 38 percent utilized, with 400 “empty seats.”

Instead, 394 Manierre students are going to Jenner, which has 377 “empty seats” by CPS’s calculation.  Because CPS utilization standards are so parsimonious, that looks like a recipe for overcrowding.

Rather than send Manierre students to higher-performing, racially-diverse schools, CPS is choosing to double down on segregation.


CPS is bringing in an International Baccalureate program to Jenner and six other receiving schools, along with STEM programs at eleven receiving schools.

For some this is reminscent of the Fine Arts Academies and Math and Science Academies that were rolled out with such fanfare under Arne Duncan.

The new programs will require ongoing teacher training and resources, warns Lorraine Forte at Catalyst, if they are not to “end up as nothing more than public relations ‘spin’ to sell closings as a sound educational idea.”

“I like the IB curriculum — it’s geared toward creativity and cricial thinking and not just test prep,” comments blogger and retired education professor Mike Klonsky.  “I think all students should be getting something like that.”

This may not be the most cost-effective way to get it, though, since it involves paying tens of thousands of dollars to the IB organization by each school, for certification, curricula and tests, training and evaluation.  CPS has budgeted $15 million to bring the IB program to seven schools, including new labs.  That’s the same amount being spent to expand full-day kindergarten to all elementary schools.

The new programs are part of a major effort by CPS — involving air conditioning, libraries, labs, playgrounds, and iPads — to depict the school closings as an effort to focus resources, rather than an effort to clear the way for the charter expansion that Emanuel and CPS plan.

One problem, as the Sun-Times points out, is that many of the schools that are being closed already have the features now being promised for receiving schools.  Their example is Garvey, which already has the the air-conditioning, computer lab, and pre-school now being promised at receiving schools.  Garvey, which CPS wants to close, also has higher test scores than its receiving school.

In some cases CPS doesn’t seem to know what’s available in the schools it wants to board up.  It lists “no computer lab” at Henson in its explaining of why the school has been chosen for closing.

In fact, Henson has 16 computers in its library and a technology lab in the room next door, said Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance.  “It has computers in every classroom, and technology integrated in every class.

“I don’t know if [CPS is] just out of touch, or if they are out-and-out lying,” she said.

(Similarly, CPS says Ericson school “lacks science and computer labs”; Chicago Public Fools reports the school has a science lab and four computer labs.)

Community schools

Catalyst describes Henson as “a hub for the community.”  The school converted three classrooms into a health clinic run by Erie Family Health Center for students and community members, and Erie helped set up a food pantry.

The health clinic moved to Henson from Frazier when it was closed and absorbed into Henson.  But it’s unlikely there will be space at the next proposed receiving school, Charles Evan Hughes Elementary.  With Henson’s 250 students joining Hughes’s 300 students, the student body could be significantly higher than the Hughes school’s building capacity of 510 listed by CPS.

And since CPS uses building capacity rather than program capacity as its standard — and allows for class sizes as high as 36 — its utilization standard consistently overstates real school capacity.

Henson is a hub in more ways than those.  Leonard visited Henson during spring break, while school was out, and found it bustling.  “One set of students was doing athletics, another set was choreographing their own dance, another was writing their own music.”  Will a school at 100 percent capacity have room for that kind of programming?

In an internet ad paid for by the Walton Family Foundation, Barbara Byrd-Bennett waxes eloquent about what children deserve:  “With our consolidations, we’ll be able to guarantee that our children will get what they need and deserve, and that parents will now walk into their child’s school and see their child engaged in a dance studio, see their child engaged in a science experiment, see their child with access to technology.”

In fact, though, a dance program, a technology lab, and a health clinic are being shut down at Henson — and it’s quite unlikely there will be room for all those programs at Hughes.

Many of the schools slated for closing are community schools, Katten said. But the consolidated schools will be hard-pressed to replicate the same breadth of programming.

With the consolidations, “schools will have to choose between huge class sizes or giving up programs,” she said.  “It’s going to be one or the other.

“Schools will be forced to increase class sizes a ton or give up space they’re using for things CPS admits they should have.”

Lafayette Elementary has gotten wide attention for its music program.  It’s being closed, and its hugely successful string orchestra program is up in the air, said Merit Music executive director Tom Bracy.   “We’re hoping we can bring the program to Chopin,” the school set to absorb Lafayette, “so we don’t lose 100 students who are currently playing stringed instruments.”

(Photo by Sarah Ji)

(Photo by Sarah Ji)

But even if they succeed in keeping the program going, it will be a different program.  With one-third of Lafayette’s students in special ed, including a well-regarded autism program, the school’s orchestra has fully integrated students with disabilities, as has the school itself.

“Our kids play together, they have gym together, they have art together, music” one Lafayette mother told DNAinfo.

But while Lafayette’s general education students are being sent to Chopin, its special education students are going to “schools capable of handling the needs of the children,” DNAinfo reported.

So even if Lafayette’s orchestra survives, many of the children who have benefitted the most from it will no longer be part of it.

How many programs like this, initiated and supported by communities and schools at a time when CPS has been cutting art and music, will be swept away in the tsunami of school closings?

One thing is clear: CPS has no idea.  All the impassioned testimony from parents and teachers about vital programs, about the realities of space use, about the need for long-range planning, and about serious safety concerns seems to have had no impact on the district’s decision-making process, which could be defined in two words: “mayoral control.”



What could go wrong?

Saving money?


‘Disaster capitalism’ at CPS http://www.newstips.org/2013/03/disaster-capitalism-at-cps/ http://www.newstips.org/2013/03/disaster-capitalism-at-cps/#comments Sun, 17 Mar 2013 19:33:28 +0000 http://www.newstips.org/?p=7034 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.

It’s all about the ideology.

Sure, some neighborhoods are gaining population and some are losing.  But that’s a different discussion — unrelated to the number of “empty seats” in the district as a whole — and one that requires a facilities master plan.   It requires planning based on demographic projections, not a rush job based on this year’s numbers.  It requires considering the impact of school closings on these communities, too.

It’s clear Emanuel has a plan of his own for CPS — he just doesn’t want to let the people of Chicago know what it is.  That’s not transparent, of course, and it evades accountability.  Beyond that it’s dishonest, framing the discussion in false terms, and it seems a little cowardly.


CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett promised to hold a respectful, meaningful community engagement process and to listen to what parents and community members say.

But judging from the audio of a call with reporters released by WBEZ, Byrd-Bennett is engaging in selective listening.  She’s hearing what she wants to hear.

Saying the “overriding themes” of the testimony were concerns over student safety and the quality of receiving schools, Byrd-Bennett claimed, “Everybody got it that we really needed to close schools, that we really needed to consolidate.”

This was based on reports on the hearings prepared by staff or perhaps consultants, according to Byrd-Bennett.  She ought to take five minutes and dip into any one of the videos of community hearings posted by CPS.  She’ll see rather quickly that her staff reports are incomplete.

Speakers representing school after school tell why they should not be shut down.  Many community residents speak out against the entire school closing plan, challenging its basic premises and calling for no more charters.

At every hearing I attended, every alderman who spoke demanded no school closings in his or her ward.

“Everybody” doesn’t “get it.”

Pilsen/LV Closings Commission Hearing

Perhaps Byrd-Bennett hasn’t heard of the legislation to block school closings this year (SB 1571 and HB 3283) that’s been introduced in Springfield?  It’s sponsored by Senator Willie Delgado, chair of the Senate Education Committee, and cosponsored by dozens of Democrats including the chairs of the black and Latino caucuses, Representatives Ken Dunkin and Cynthia Soto. Delgado is holding a hearing on the bill Tuesday.

The bill calls for a moratorium on closings until CPS rolls out its facilities master plan.  That point was made also repeatedly in the community hearings, though Byrd-Bennett may not have heard it. (CPS spokesperson Becky Carroll told the Sun-Times that the facilities plan “has nothing to do” with the utilization issue.  It’s a “visioning” thing.)

“We’re not gonna sit back and say, ‘OK, Mayor Rahm Emanuel — do what you want to do, how you want to do it, when you want to do it — at our expense. It’s OK with us, buddy.’” Dunkin said. “Not on this issue.”

These legislators, and the aldermen speaking out against closings, are a good barometer of sentiment in the communities impacted by the proposed closings.  They’re the ones getting the calls from voters.  And they understand that school closings are just one more huge cutback of public services, and another big step in the painful process of disinvestment from these communities.

“Whether Byrd-Bennett agrees with [parents] or not, she should not mischaracterize what happened at the hearings,” commented Raise Your Hand.  “So much for rebuilding trust.”


Meanwhile, our roving mayor was on a panel in New York City on Friday, holding forth on what’s wrong with Chicago schools.  (He was also on a panel of “education mayors” in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago.)

“The real problem,” he said, “is not just the education of our children.  We have parents that can’t be parents.”

Sure, all parents have issues, and some have lots of issues.

On the other hand, Emanuel seems somehow to have missed the tremendous outpouring, in the recent community hearings, of thousands and thousands of parents who care deeply about their children’s education — in the very communities he has targeted and now describes so dismissively.

And how does his analysis work as a guide to policy?  Chicago is in the top rank of the nation’s cities for black unemployment; over 20 percent are unemployed — 2.5 times the unemployment rate for whites here — and according to the Chicago Reporter, 56 percent of the city’s African Americans are out of the labor force.

Many thousands are locked in permanent unemployment due to run-ins with a criminal justice system that targets blacks with far higher rates of arrest and conviction and much harsher sentences than whites committing the same infractions.

The mayor’s economic development policies are focused on building a “global city,” while his response to the epidemic of violence focuses on locking up more young people, a strategy that will only perpetuate the cycle.

He’s laid off hundreds of city workers, most of them black, and farmed out city services to private agencies that will cut wages. His schools policy, meanwhile, threatens the middle-class jobs of thousands of African Americans in these communities.

“It’s easy for him to go to another city and shift the blame away from himself, rather than investing in programs to improve parenting and provide economic opportunities,” commented West Side education activist Dwayne Truss “I guess the mayor is too busy touting corporate jobs transferred from other cities, while he’s firing janitors, lunchroom staff and teachers.”

Emanuel’s New York comments reflect the “family values” rhetoric of the “New Democrats” of his formative years in the 1990s (and their pro-business, anti-worker ideology) — not to mention the “blame the victims” approach of the conservative backlash to the civil rights movement: they’re in the same vein, though not as extreme, as Newt Gingrich’s call for placing children of welfare families in orphanages. The policies Emanuel championed in those years — free trade pacts, elimination of poverty programs, the incarceration boom — have ravished the communities that are now threatened with losing their schools.

In New York, Emanuel touted twelve parent-child centers CPS is opening.  But he’s threatening dozens of schools that have used available space for create parent resource rooms, where adults without computers at home can look for jobs, study for GEDs, and connect with their children’s education.

How are communities struggling with epic foreclosure, unemployment and crime rates ever going to get traction for a comeback if their last remaining institutions are shuttered? Or does the “global cities” strategy actually, secretly, involve further depopulating them?

Photos by Sarah-Ji

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Engaging communities and counting classrooms http://www.newstips.org/2013/03/engaging-communities-and-counting-classrooms/ Fri, 08 Mar 2013 01:43:47 +0000 http://www.newstips.org/?p=7025 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 http://www.newstips.org/2013/01/closing-schools-without-a-plan/ http://www.newstips.org/2013/01/closing-schools-without-a-plan/#comments Sat, 12 Jan 2013 04:07:52 +0000 http://www.newstips.org/?p=6871 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.

http://www.newstips.org/2013/01/closing-schools-without-a-plan/feed/ 1
Questions for the commission: enrollment, finances http://www.newstips.org/2012/12/questions-for-the-commission-enrollment-finances/ Wed, 19 Dec 2012 01:56:42 +0000 http://www.newstips.org/?p=6831 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 http://www.newstips.org/2012/11/on-school-closings-a-political-ploy/ http://www.newstips.org/2012/11/on-school-closings-a-political-ploy/#comments Wed, 28 Nov 2012 00:44:12 +0000 http://www.newstips.org/?p=6779 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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Subliminal message: Rahm lost http://www.newstips.org/2012/09/subliminal-message-rahm-lost/ http://www.newstips.org/2012/09/subliminal-message-rahm-lost/#comments Tue, 25 Sep 2012 23:49:48 +0000 http://www.newstips.org/?p=6668 Mayor Emanuel “knows he lost” in the recent showdown with the teachers union “and finds it necessary to rehabilitate himself,” political analyst Don Rose told Newstips last week.

That’s his take on the TV ad blitz by an arm of Democrats for Education Reform – which has cost “an astronomical amount of money,” according to a campaign finance analyst.

With only 19 percent thinking he handled the situation well – “the first time the mayor has been upside down in any polling” – Emanuel “believes he needs damage control,” Rose writes in a letter to the Sun-Times on Tuesday.

“What is most distressing,” Rose writes, is that Emanuel accepts financing “from anti-union advocacy groups whose acknowledged goal is the destruction of teachers unions and the eventual breakup of public education itself.”

Rose, who advised the firefighters union around the time of their 1980 strike against Mayor Jane Byrne, concludes: “We have not seen the end of union-busting tactics emanating from the fifth floor of City Hall.”

As noted here last week, DFER was founded by billionaire hedge-fund traders who like charter schools and hate teachers unions.  “National donors” funded the group’s recent expansion into Illinois, according to Catalyst; funding is now said to be a combination of local and national money, though DFER wouldn’t discuss who its donors are.

Previously the group ran radio ads criticizing the union’s decision to hold a strike vote, then calling on CTU to “get back to the table” – while negotiations were underway continuously.  “If you listened to a DFER radio ad, you would have thought CTU pulled out of negotiations,” Raise Your Hand points out.  The group ran TV ads throughout the strike.


Featuring Emanuel himself, the newest ad campaign works less to boost the corporate school reform agenda than to buff the mayor’s tarnished image.

It’s a symptom of the post-Citizens United political landscape and of the vastly expensive “24/7, 365-day campaign cycle” that’s resulted, said David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

The reported $1 million price tag is “an astronomical amount,” he said, dwarfing any other campaign media spending at the moment – and especially remarkable on behalf of a politicians who’s not currently running for office.

And because it was spent by a 501 (C) 4 nonprofit — Education Reform Now Advocates, the educational arm of the DFER (which itself is a political action committee) — we have no way of knowing where the money came from, he said.

The purpose of disclosure is to help citizens evaluate the messages that interest groups pay for.  It would be welcome in this case, Morrison suggests. “They could choose to disclose voluntarily,” he said.

And the activities of Education Reform Now Advocates “may be covered by lobbyist requirements,” he said.  As of June, no one from DFER or ERNA had registered with the city as a lobbyist.

Along with the huge infusions of outside cash from unknown sources, the perpetual campaigning is a matter of serious concern. Morrison points out that “part of the reason we have relatively long, four-year terms” for mayor is “so there’s a substantial period when you focus on what’s best for your constituents, not what’s best for your reelection.”

“There comes a time when you have to stop campaigning and start governing,” he said.  “It can be difficult to bring people together and pass legislation when you’re always sticking your finger in someone’s eye.”


Raise Your Hand Coalition lists more questions about DFER in a new blog post.  Not just “why a group of hedge-fund managers from New York is trying to run public policy in Chicago.”  But also, how did DFER get its hand on the cell phone numbers of CPS parents?  Many parents have been asking, RYH reports.

And another thing – what if those millions of dollars spent on TV ads and robocalls had been spent on schools instead?

Raise Your Hand was neutral during the strike, though it has worked with teachers on issues like increased funding for schools and a well-rounded curriculum with less testing.

But they’re distressed to see mayoral confidante Bruce Rauner (who Rose calls “a real right-winger”) declaring on Chicago Tonight, “This is war.”

“Most parents don’t want a war. They want a district that’s looking out for all children, that is capable of collaboration.”  Their concerns: “having a voice in educational policy and putting resources in the classroom.”

RYH promises to keep its focus on reforming state funding for schools.  And when that push comes, it will be interesting to see if the hedge-fund guys lend a hand.

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