Commission says Chicago has capacity for 80 school closings

Commission hopes consolidations offer kids a better education, but admits closing schools “has not, in the past, led to greater educational opportunities for children.”

March 6, 2013

(WBEZ/Bill Healy)

After four months of public hearings and review, the commission charged with studying school closings in Chicago has determined the school district has enough staff and available space to pull off 80 school shake-ups, including closings and total staff overhauls known as turnarounds.

That’s five times the number Chicago has ever undertaken in a single year.

The district-appointed commission released its final report Tuesday. The report is advisory only; the school district must come up with a final list of schools it wants to close by March 31. It’s narrowed the possibilities to 129 schools, most of them on the city’s South and West Sides.

The commission’s principal recommendation, stated forcefully and repeatedly throughout the report, is that CPS only closes schools where students can be transferred safely to better performing receiving schools. It acknowledged that hasn’t necessarily happened in the past.

“We recognize that closing schools can be a disruptive and dispiriting process and has not, in the past, led to greater educational opportunities for children,” the report states. “At the same time, consolidation has the potential to improve the education of tens of thousands of Chicago youth.”

Additional Commission recommendations urge the district to:

·         Look beyond the formula that determines if a school is underutilized and consider other factors, such as Head Start programs that operate in the building;

·         Consider splitting closures over two years, rather than closing all schools at once;

·         “Spend the money to do it right,” adequately funding safety initiatives and infrastructure at the receiving schools;

·         Create community-based building committees to develop plans for vacated school buildings, so they do not become “eyesores, or worse.”

The Chicago Teachers Union immediately blasted the report, saying the district has no way to shut down 13 percent of its schools without “mass chaos.”  It issued a renewed call for a moratorium on all school closings and turnarounds until an independent party can study the impact they’ve had on students. The union predicts school closings would cost taxpayers more than it will save and leave the city with abandoned buildings and destabilized neighborhoods.

In an emailed statement, schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett said the commission’s findings are proof schools are under-used. The district has argued children will get a better education if it is able to focus limited dollars on a smaller number of schools.

An interim report released by the commission in January made nine recommendations, all of which were accepted by the school district. Those included not closing high schools or schools with enrollments over 600. At that time, the Commission noted the school district had never closed even a dozen schools in a single year.

On a conference call with reporters late Wednesday, Commission chairman Frank Clark said the district has added staff just to deal with school closings. “They have an increased capability. They brought in a person very versed in logistics, a person very versed in security and safety. I’ve seen organization charts that augment this process with literally scores of people either trained or being trained.”

The Commission’s report says the district has already set up a “central command office” to handle the planning and implementation of school closings. It says the district has experience moving large numbers of students, and cites the 25,000 eighth graders who move each year from grammar schools into high school.

A history of school actions taken by the school district over the past decade and compiled by WBEZ shows CPS’ most ambitious year for closings and turnarounds was in 2006-07, when the district closed, consolidated, phased out or turned around 16 schools.

Clark said the Commission calculated there are 37,000 empty seats in higher performing schools in the district. He said about 25,000 of them are located within 1.5 miles of schools targeted for closure.

The district’s guidelines for closings say receiving schools must be one level higher on the performance policy than the closing school. Or they must outperform the closing school on 3 of 4 measures--all based on state standardized test scores. Chicago Public Schools has had difficulty tracking students whose schools have closed, and has not reported publicly on how those students have fared.

A University of Chicago study showed just 6 percent of students whose schools had closed ended up at significantly better schools.