Public school closures to be based on enrollment, not performance

District leaders could still use performance to pick schools for turnaround.

November 1, 2012

Chicago Public School officials announced Wednesday that they do not plan to shutter schools based on student performance, as they have in the past.

Newly seated schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the district will close only schools that they consider to be underused. The district says 140 schools are more than half empty, but did not put a number on how many of those could be slated for closure.

Low-performing schools could still face drastic school improvement measures, such as being turned around, which usually means children stay at the school, while the entire staff is replaced.

Rumors have been flying for months about plans to close more than 100 schools, but Byrd-Bennett, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Board President David Vitale have all repeatedly said there is no plan to close that many schools.

Like her predecessor Jean-Claude Brizard, Byrd-Bennett said she wants to get feedback from communities before making any decisions. Under state law, school closures must be announced by December 1.

“We have no respect from the community,” Byrd-Bennett. “They do believe there’s a plan in the bottom desk drawer that we’re going to whip out and then every school that’s closed will then be turned over to a charter operator and that’s simply not true.”

Teachers, parents and community members criticized the way CPS handled school closings and other drastic improvement measures last year. Members of a task force created by state law two years ago to oversee the closure process blasted CPS for putting forward guidelines that were too vague and did not make it clear why one school was chosen over another.

But school officials did not discuss any plans or guidelines for selecting schools to be turned around. In a turnaround, all the school’s staff, even lunchroom workers, are fired and a new team essentially reboots the school.  In some cases, CPS hands the school over to the privately run Academy for Urban School Leadership to do the turnaround.

The state law that created the task force to oversee this process sets forth a timeline and specific rules that CPS must follow when implementing drastic school actions. But the law does not include turnarounds.

Last year, school officials announced a record number of schools slated for turnaround just days before announcing closures.  But district spokeswoman Becky Carroll said it’s “entirely possible” that turnarounds could be announced after the December 1 deadline.

Carroll did not say when or if there would be a public input process, but noted that, ”there’s always an ongoing conversation internally on that.” She reiterated that the law does not require turnarounds be part of the same community input requirements that closures do.

Last month, some charter school leaders said district officials had come to them to see if they’d be willing to do turnarounds, rather than opening entirely new schools in previously closed school buildings. Carroll said that idea was only “conceptual” and that there were no immediate plans to do so.

Over the past decade, CPS has closed more than 100 schools, while at the same time opening new charter and magnet schools. But during that time, enrollment has decreased and school officials have said there's been little cost savings associated with school closings.

On Wednesday, district officials again did not provide an estimate for how much they might save this year.