Shabazz students perplexed by school closure

March 6, 2013

Camille Elly leads her freshman “Survey of Literature” class through a lesson about racism at Betty Shabazz International Charter School’s DuSable High School.

“Would that be an example of overt, covert or internalized racism?” she asks.

The students, all of them African American, are reading Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” citing examples from the text to answer her question.

It’s the day after the Chicago Board of Education voted to shut down the South Side charter school, in a rare four-to-two vote. Board members Mahalia Hines and Andrea Zopp voted against the closure.

“At first, I thought they was joking, because I don’t feel anything is wrong with the school,” said Shabazz senior Courtney Blackmond.

Blackmond is a senior, so the decision won’t affect her—current students will be allowed to graduate, but there won’t be any new freshman next year.

CPS says there is something wrong with her school—it’s not doing well on standardized tests and too many of the 333 students are far from proficient in reading, according the district’s measures.

But administrators argue the school is successful in sending kids to college and is actually a place students who might have otherwise dropped out want to come.

The move to close Shabazz's high school campus, and CPS's move to place charters on an academic warning list, raises some long-standing questions for those involved in public education: What does it mean to be a good school? How do you measure what makes a school worthwhile? 

Shabazz International Charter Schools were created in 1998 and stemmed from a private school model, said Carol Lee, the school's co-founder and current Board of Directors president. 

The network of schools prides itself on having an Afro-centric curriculum, which leaders say is a good thing given CPS’s recent commitment to teach more Black history. Each day at Shabazz starts with a “unity circle” and students I talked to say the school feels like a family. Teachers are called “Mama” and “Baba,” African terms for mom and dad.

Lee said when they opened the high school in 2005, then CPS CEO Arne Duncan also asked them to take over a failing charter school, called Triumphant. That elementary school is now the Shabazz-Sizemore campus. Lee said launching two schools in one year caused some logistical headaches.

She said they’re asking CPS for the same amount of time that the phase-out would take—three  years—to bring up the high school's test scores before it's closed.

But district leaders—who are starting to crack down on charter performance—say it’s too late. In a presentation to the Board of Education at last week's monthly meeting, Jack Elsey, the district's chief innovation and incubation officer, said the school had a "lack of academic rigor" and the school's improvement efforts were "inconsistently implemented." 

Board member Andrea Zopp questioned Elsey on why school leaders chose this particular campus and she ultimately voted against the decision to close Shabazz. But the measure still passed with four "yes" votes.

That means, for sophomore Sheldon Williams, the school will be a different place by the time he’s a senior. There will be fewer kids, which also means less money. That can lead to fewer teachers, books and other resources.

“This doesn’t mean we give up,” Williams said. “This means that we try harder and we show CPS that we can do it and that we have a real good school.”

Williams chose to go to Shabazz-DuSable. He used to go to Bogan High School, but told me he didn’t do very well because he was easily distracted.

I asked him what he might say to CPS about its decision.

“I would just ask you a question,” he said. “Why out of all schools that’s doing poorly on tests, would you pick us to close down?”

Shabazz administrators said they also wonder why the district is concentrating on their one high school, rather than all high schools or other larger charter operators who struggle to perform well on standardized tests.

The closure decision of Shabazz and Aspria's Mirta Ramirez High School was not met with fanfare from charter school critics, including the Chicago Teachers' Union.

At a hearing for charter school renewals, CTU staff coordinator Jackson Potter said closing schools uproots students and their families. He said no schools should close. Instead CPS should give resources to their existing schools and stop opening new ones.

Elsey said CPS recently created an the Office of Strategic School Support Services "to give schools intensive support and resources" but that "steady poor performance - despite interventions, despite turnaround efforts - means that sometimes closure is necessary, as was the case with the two charter schools slated for phase-out closure."