Much Controversy, Suspicion, Confusion on School Consolidation Plans

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Chicago BureauAfter much debate and rumor, the Chicago Public Schools has moved to keep many threatened high schools and high performance schools at all levels open, signaling a shift in approach that had generated much fear and anger with parents.

Chicago Public School CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, in her formal response to the guidelines for school closures recommended by the Commission on School Utilization, made the statement last week, ahead of a loud and emotional meeting this week in which parents and teachers weighed in on the pros and cons of shuttering underused or failing schools to save money, up citywide academic standards and improve overall district performance.

The eight-member commission was created by Byrd-Bennett to advise the CPS board on closings of underutilized schools. Faced with a $1 billion budget deficit and unused facilities that are highly expensive to maintain,
school closings has, according to some school officials, become something of a necessity.

But parents fear if schools are closed, the education of their children
will be disrupted and communities will lose a neighborhood touchstone.
Students may have to take long and dangerous commutes as they will cross gang lines on their way to new buildings.

The commission had recommended high schools should not be closed, as
school violence could arise from the intermixing of students from
different neighborhoods and because high school students need the most
stable education. Level 1, or high-performing schools according to testing
and other measures, should be kept open as an alternative for students
whose schools have been closed.

Also, according to the report, schools in the process of adding more
grades, schools with more than 600 students, schools almost fully
utilized, and schools experiencing “significant school actions,” including
mass turnover of staff and reconstruction of curriculum, should all be
kept off the table, the commission recommended.

The city spends $313 million to maintain the infrastructure of its
hundreds of school buildings at the elementary, middle and high school
levels. Yet an estimated 100,000 seats sit empty and half of its
facilities are under capacity, according to the commission’s report.

Closing one school saves over $500,000 according to a CPS official who
asked not to be named, directing the costs of maintenance of unused
facilities to other public schools. The problem of crowding and poor
performance, the official said, makes necessary the closing of certain
buildings that had been neighborhood fixtures.

But school consolidation is a source of much tension among administrators under a budget crunch. Certain school advocacy organizations and community groups fear CPS will close public schools only to open charter schools in the same location.

Frank Clark, the commission’s director, told reporters this month, ahead
of Wednesday’s meeting, that he recognized the distrust parents and
Chicago communities had of its schools system.

For his part, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced this week that Jones College Prep High School, located in the South Loop in downtown Chicago, would double the number of seats available for selective-enrollment. The announcement caught some parents off guard while angering others. Parents and teachers argue that the South Loop and more struggling neighborhoods across the city needed high-quality neighborhood schools available to their children, not schools that require high test scores.

In her formal response to the report, Byrd-Bennett also agreed to keep
open those schools that are currently growing and adding more grades. As for other guidelines, Byrd-Bennett said she would decide on a case-by-case basis.

According to the 23-page commission report presented to the Chicago School Board, parents at community meetings were worried their children would be moved to low-performing schools and forced to confront rival gangs to attend class in a new neighborhood. Community leaders, parents and teachers at the public meetings questioned the CPS formula for underutilization, which was the subject of much debate and even suspicion, and many defended their smaller neighborhood schools.

“Now, my granddaughter who goes to a school, that’s a smaller school, that is a quality school, they are being short-changed simply because they don’t have a gym room, they don’t have a lunch room,” said a woman who said she was a former CPS teacher and grandmother of a current student at a public meeting on Chicago’s Far South Side.

“There is a possibility these children will be displaced, and if they are
displaced, safety is a concern of mine.”

Indeed, over the past school year, 319 CPS students were shot and wounded in mostly gang-related violence, according to Chicago Police statistics.

“School can be a safe haven, but it’s getting to that school that is my
concern,” said the grandmother, whose name was not given during the
meeting.

Hoping to settle these concerns, the commission’s guidelines press CPS to keep all high schools open in order to prevent violence. The commission also recommends CPS to not close high-performing schools so that the district can learn from these schools and offer them as more appealing alternatives for students of closing low-performance buildings.

Byrd-Bennett has decided to take academic performance of schools into
consideration, which was previously unclear as CPS has a set of mandatory
school action guidelines which no longer include academic performance
evaluation.

“I believe these recommendations will be taken very seriously,” Frank said
when asked about the non-binding nature of the commission’s guidelines.

CPS must give students the option to attend high-performing schools if
their schools are closed. The schools on the receiving end must first be
evaluated to ensure they meet CPS utilization standards even though CPS has recorded a significant decline in the population of children in
Chicago over the past 10 years.

Consider: According to CPS Space Utilization and Enrollment Data, about 42 percent of classrooms in underutilized schools are overcrowded.

At another public meeting, students and parents asked for more resources to improve their schools rather than face closure—more money, more books, more arts supplies. Schools acting as an anchor to communities will, according to the commission, be addressed.

“Conditions at my school aren’t great, we need more resources and what
not, but this is why we’re here today, for parents and families to say,
‘Don’t close down our schools,’” a Roosevelt High School student said. “We should be able to improve them so I can be able to go there. I want to attend my school, that’s my neighborhood school.”

At Roosevelt, over 94 percent of students are from low-income households and only 14 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in a state-wide examination in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the Illinois school report cards.

The deadline for CPS to release its official school consolidation plans is
Mar. 31.

The Chicago Bureau, a partnership with Youth Today, is a sometimes multimedia, sometimes straight news, sometimes long form and always objective effort to cover a broad variety of reporting on youth issues from that city.