Ex-Marine's mission: Make sure CPS 'Welcoming Schools' are welcoming

Meet the man who oversees the closing of 50 Chicago public schools and the transfer of nearly 12,000 students to new schools.

August 23, 2013

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Tom Tyrrell visits with DePriest Elementary principal Minnie Watson. DePriest is slated to take in 124 students from closed Emmet Elementary.

School starts in just a few days in Chicago. There’s a lot of last-minute scrambling every year at this time. But this summer, Chicago has also juggled a massive logistics operation because of school closures. WBEZ’s Linda Lutton recently met up with the guy overseeing it all.

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To understand the task facing Tom Tyrrell, imagine for a moment relocating the entire population of a small Illinois town. Something the size of Winnetka, say, or River Forest. All the people, all their stuff.

Oh, and before you move them in, you have to fix up the new place. Remodeling.  Air conditioning.

That is essentially Tom Tyrrell’s job: close 50 schools and move 12,000 kids to what the school district is calling “Welcoming Schools.”

Tyrrell is Chicago’s commander in chief of school closings.

TYRRELL: We’re certainly responsible for the delivery of welcoming schools that are welcoming. And that’s the mission.

Tyrrell thinks in terms of missions. He’s was an officer in the Marine Corps, retired as a colonel. He’s been in charge of some pretty big transitions.  Like one at the Pentagon…

TYRRELL: …which was really taking the Department of Defense and trying to create the roadmap from the Cold War mentality to what we called then the asymmetric threat, which now we call terrorism.

He was in Kosovo.

TYRRELL:  I was the senior planning person for the multinational team that was in Kosovo of about 40,000. Ironically, about the same size as CPS, I guess. So two big complex organizations. Both wanting to get better quickly.

There are obvious differences between closing 50 schools and starting a new country or fighting terrorism. But there are also similarities.

TYRRELL: You know, there are a group of people that don’t want something to happen—that you’re trying to persuade that this thing that you’re doing is really in everyone’s best interest, and to some extent the only thing you could do.

Tyrrell has broken down this massive job into broad areas handled by top deputies.  There’s a  global logistics firm—basically the district’s moving company. There’s an IT person. A textbook person. A consultant from Detroit, which used to be the leader in school closings—before Chicago.

On a table in Tyrrell’s office are a half dozen guides on how to close schools.  Yes, there are guidebooks for this. As American cities contract, as budgets get squeezed, as more charter schools open--big cities across the country have had to figure out how to close down schools.

TYRRELL: There’s D.C. for example. Here’s North Carolina.This is a really good one, the Broad Foundation School Closure Guide.
 

As you can probably hear, Tyrrell is not from Chicago.

TYRRELL:  I grew up in Oklahoma and basically lived around the country and around the world for 26 years.

Driving to visit a West Side welcoming school late last week, Tyrrell said we’d be getting off at “Exit 23B” –that’s what most Chicagoans would call Central Avenue.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s schools administration is full of people not from Chicago. Getting top-notch people from anywhere in world to dispassionately solve the city’s problems sounds like common sense. But it’s also caused complaints—that decisions are based on spreadsheets and maps that ignore realities obvious to Chicagoans, like gang lines, race lines, neighborhood culture and history.

TYRRELL: Could we walk around a little bit? You show me? Basically I’m just concerned  about four or five things, and I think you guys have probably got ‘em covered.

At Duke Ellington Elementary, Tyrrell gets to figure out how his downtown plans are playing out. This is his first visit to the school. It’s spacious and modern, built just eight years ago. It will serve as the welcoming school for shuttered Emmet Elementary.

TYRRELL: Are you doing OK with staffing?

Tyrrell asks assistant principal Salik Mukarram whether construction at Ellington has wrapped up. He tells him Ellington is not the only school still waiting for kindergarten furniture. He asks how clean-up is going.   

TYRRELL: Do you need any more arms and legs?  Cause we do have some surge teams available.

Tyrrell estimates that every day he has somewhere between 300 and 500 people getting the closing schools closed and the welcoming schools spruced up.

TYRRELL: What about your IT? Did you get a bunch of new stuff come in?

MUKARRAM: Well, we got another computer lab, I won’t say “new” computer lab, because it’s some equipment obviously from the other school.

TYRRELL: Are they flat screens at least?

MUKARRAM: No, no it’s not the flat screens either.

TYRRELL: Where’s that at? Can you show me that?

(lab door opens)

TYRRELL: See, this interesting to me cause we weren’t supposed to deploy these unless we really had to, so I’m not sure what’s going on. So I’ll have to check on this.

The computer lab looks like your typical CPS lab. About 30 black Dell computers set on tables. Big fat monitors, and Tyrrell isn’t happy with that. He takes pictures, and we head back to the hallway.

TYRRELL: How many new students are you getting? About?

MUKARRAM: About? A little over 400 new students.  So we’re actually receiving more new students than we used to have. So our population more than doubled.

LUTTON: Whoa. So how does that feel?

MUKARRAM: It feels exciting. And challenging at the same time.

The district gives Ellington a Level 1 rating, the best of three grades. But some have wondered how doubling in size will affect the school’s culture and performance.

Next, Tyrrell takes me to DePriest Elementary, another school that’s taking in students from Emmett. Principal Minnie Watson takes us to the gym, where enormous piles stretch up for the basketball hoops.

WATSON: OK, All of this back here is material that we got from Emmet. We got science kits—and these are FOSS kits, and they’re pricewise over $2000 apiece.

TYRRELL: Nice!

WATSON: We have display boards for the science fairs and for the history fairs.

TYRRELL: Nice!

WATSON:   There’s paper, there’s pens....

Like at other welcoming schools, the gym here is a staging area, so is the lunchroom— full of textbooks from the closed school, and new books too.

Tyrrell says his takeaway from Ellington and DePriest is that they’re ready.

TYRRELL: These are two schools that are gonna accomplish the mission.

Of course, many welcoming schools are in much older, needier buildings than the ones Tyrrell brought me to.  In some, even today, construction work isn’t finished .  

That doesn’t worry Tyrrell.

TYRRELL: If we miss something --we’ll go back and, whatever it is—we’ll go back and fix it. If there’s a computer that doesn’t boot up, if there’s a corner that didn’t get painted. Something didn’t get cleaned as well as it should have. We can fix that stuff. My report card is: does every student feel welcome at their new school? That’s my report card.

Tyrrell says he recognizes that the district’s work will not take away the pain people feel at losing their schools.

TYRRELL: We have got to focus now on making it worth that effort. And making those parents feel good about the fact that, I’m sad that my school closed, I will miss that as a school in my community. But I am really glad with the performance of the school where my children are going now. That’s the moment of opportunity for us.

And the first test of that comes Monday.