CPS wants to close first Renaissance schools

May 8, 2013

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)
Students at Williams Prep Middle School protest the proposed closure of their school. Williams was closed in 2002. Now the replacement schools—started from scratch—are being closed.

Chicago has been opening and closing public schools every year for the past decade.

It’s a controversial strategy that former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan believed was an answer to improving public education.

But in the most recent round of proposed school closings, CPS is shutting down the very schools Duncan created.

Eleven years ago, on April 10, 2002, Duncan announced he would shut down three elementary schools—Williams, Dodge and Terrell—for chronic low performance. The idea was to start over from scratch in order to create something better.

Five years later—it seemed to have worked.

In 2008, Dodge was where then president-elect Barack Obama announced Duncan as his pick for U.S. Secretary of Education.

“He’s shut down failing schools and replaced their entire staffs, even when it was unpopular,” Obama said at the time. “This school right here, Dodge Renaissance Academy, is a perfect example. Since this school was revamped and reopened in 2003, the number of students meeting state standards has more than tripled.”

But fast forward another five years, Dodge is closing its doors.

In fact, all three of the schools that would eventually help to launch Duncan’s signature Renaissance 2010 initiative are getting shaken up by the current CPS administration.

Williams Elementary and Middle School will close. (Drake Elementary will take over the building.) The Dodge building will close. (Dodge will technically continue to operate but will move 1.3 miles west to share a building with Morton Elementary.) The school that now operates in the old Terrell building, ACE Tech Charter School, was placed on an academic warning list in February, and district officials have warned if it doesn't improve they will close it down. 

And for the first time, CPS is pulling the plug on a “turnaround” school, Bethune Elementary. Just four years ago, all Bethune staff was fired and the privately run, nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership took over--another example of the school reform strategy that says a clean slate can lead to better schools. AUSL also operates Dodge and Morton. 

CPS spokeswoman Molly Poppe said no one was available to speak with WBEZ on the record about the proposals to close Williams and the Dodge building. She said CPS is “focusing on the challenges of today” and that the decisions this year are primarily about under-enrollment. 

“No school is guaranteed to succeed and no school should have a perpetual license to operate if it’s failing… and you can’t pretend that a school is full if it’s mostly empty,” says Greg Richmond, who led the Office of New Schools at CPS under Duncan until 2005. Richmond now heads up the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the Illinois State Charter School Commission.

All these changes raise a much bigger question. Does the idea that closing down bad schools and opening new ones actually work? Does it lead to better schools?

“I think we have to keep trying until we find some things that work and these are very difficult circumstances and even the most talented people or some of the most talented schools may not work for some reason,” says Richmond. “Does that mean we were wrong to try it? I don’t think it means we were wrong. It was a very promising program and we tried it. But it didn’t work. Then you recognize it and then you move on. I would rather see that attitude than an attitude that keeps trying something that’s failing year after year.”

Richmond says there are all kinds of things--like buying new technology, changing curriculum and replacing leadership-- that districts keep trying over and over again in low performing schools even when they don’t work. Comparatively, closures are still pretty rare and seen as a last resort, he says.

And Dodge is still seen as a success story by Richmond and others. CPS rates it with a “Level 2” performance rating (on a scale of three). But it didn't get enough students to "vote with their feet" and enroll, which is why the Dodge building is now being closed.

“The spirit of Dodge will remain,” says Jarvis Sanford, the principal who re-opened Dodge Renaissance Academy in 2003. Sanford says he's come to terms with the school's teachers and program moving to another location. “We have to be careful not to think of the school as the sheer brick and mortar. But to think of it as the students, the teachers and the vibrancy of what it holds.”

But parents from Dodge who spoke at the latest round of public hearings are still upset with what they see as their school closing. They say the district didn't even give kids a chance to get from kindergarten to eighth grade without closing it again. 

“We want Dodge to stay at Dodge, on Washington (Blvd),” one parent shouted. 

“This is a model for CPS!”  said another. “It should be a school that you look at and say, ‘Man, you know what? The idea that we had about taking this school, shutting it down, rebranding it, breathing new life into  it, giving it a new model--we hit a sweet spot! We hit a gold mine! Two thumbs up!’ And then now to say, ‘Oh well, we’re not going to finish it through.’ We’re one year away from watching a full generation come through. To say, ‘Aw, oh yeah, well forget it.’”

It’s unclear what will happen to the Dodge building. The school district has not put Dodge on the list of buildings it is decommissioning. And Dodge may find it hard to attract students in its new home too. In addition to being located in the same building with another school, Dodge will be right around the corner from a new LEARN charter school the district is opening.  

Many families at Dodge, Williams and Bethune say the schools are much better places today than when they were initially closed or turned around. All three schools increased the number of students meeting state standards in the last decade, according to CPS data.

Lillian Allen lives about twenty blocks south of Williams, but heard about the school from a friend whose children went there.

“When I walked in that school it was like it screamed HOME for my kids,” Allen said. “It was like the Bahamas commercial, come on in, welcome home, no problem man.”

She enrolled her two kids and then met Kim Ambrose and Alex Hall, who both attended Williams when they were little. As members of the Transition Advisory Council for the school, they helped reinvent and reopen Williams in 2003.

“When we first opened, I just want to list all of the programs we had,” Ambrose said, before rattling off a lengthy list of mentoring programs, classes for parents and extracurricular activities for students.

Like it has done for lots of new schools, CPS initially poured money and resources into Williams. But over time, parents say the programs and money started to fade away.

Richmond and others say on average, it costs a half million dollars upfront to start a new school. If you do the math, that means CPS has spent at least $50 million dollars, just in start-up costs. 

Richmond says if a new school is an improvement, then that is money well spent. “Any new program costs money. So starting a new school costs money, but so does buying an iPad for everybody and so does expanding early childhood. Every new idea that comes out of CPS costs money.”

For Lillian Allen, all those new ideas coming out of CPS make her feel like she’s part of one big experiment.

“Sometimes I think that we are all pieces in the game that they’re playing,” Allen said. “And the game doesn’t affect their lives. It affects our lives. It affects our children’s lives and the outcomes of their lives.”

Becky Vevea is an education reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.