On Wednesday, the Chicago Board of Education will decide whether to close 54 schools it says are failing or underutilized.
Since the recommended list of closures was announced in March, the city has been in a heated debate about whether some schools should be taken off the list. Media access to these buildings has been almost impossible, and some worry decisions will be made without a thorough inspection.
Arturs Weible is a music teacher at Lafayette Elementary School in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. He directs the only string orchestra at a CPS elementary school.
“We have 85 kids participating in the program. And these kids have higher expectations to keep their grades up. They have to keep their behavior in order,” he said. “And so these kids are basically doing above and beyond pretty much anything that’s being asked of an elementary school child.”
Lafayette is slated to close because CPS considers it an underutilized building. Weible disagrees, and says all parts of the building are in use, but maybe not at all times of the day.
He says he wants the public to see the school before a decision is made.
“To not allow media coverage within school hours is not fair to these parents. They don’t have a voice otherwise. The media is the voice of the community,” he said.
Before CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett announced the closings list, Weible said journalists got into Lafayette easily. Now, it’s like a black out with the exception of heavily restricted visits.
The district said since late March, every media outlet has had access to a proposed closing school and/or receiving school.
CPS says with less than a week until the board vote, it’s denying media access to the closing schools because it would be too disruptive. But a number of news organizations including WBEZ and Catalyst magazine say they’ve been denied access to closing schools since the list was made public.
Some reporters have successfully entered closing schools through other means.
“I was invited to come to Garvey by a parent,” said Kate Grossman, deputy editorial page editor for the Chicago Sun-Times.
She toured Garvey Elementary on the city’s South Side earlier this spring. It’s another school proposed to be closed because of underutilization.
She said there are numbers to back up CPS’s closing recommendations, but there’s also the reality of what’s happening inside.
“You can see that by going to these schools and seeing that they have quite a lot to offer kids even though on paper they’re underused,” she said. “So I think it’s a crucial part of the decision making when you’re deciding to close a school and consolidate it with another to know what you might be losing.”
Grossman said her visit to Garvey was very different from when she was invited by CPS to tour a receiving school with CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett.
“It was lots of people, and you can’t really do a lot of in-depth reporting when you’re following a school CEO around. And the principal might not be comfortable speaking her mind,” she said.
A student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism also tried to gain access to schools without permission. CPS threatened to sever ties with Medill if it happened again.
Professor Marcel Pacatte agreed the student was wrong, but said the district’s response was extreme.
“A student was told yesterday there would be no more audio recording at closing schools. So that’s a fairly draconian issue,” he said.
Pacatte said now he’s making sure students are going through the proper channels to ensure Medill can continue covering the schools.
“I get where they’re coming from but I still don’t understand how they think it’s beneficial for the citizens of Chicago or the students in the schools of the district in the city itself to prevent stories from being told,” he said.
Media restrictions aren’t uncommon for urban school districts.
But Emily Richmond with the National Education Writers Association says too many restrictions can force reporters to find another way into the schools.
“There’s really no substitute for being able to just step back and watch what’s happening around you and have that first hand observation. And who knows what stories they would find in there,” she said.
Richmond says with an historic number of schools that could be affected, news coverage needs to go beyond statistics and present a clearer view of what’s happening.
Susie An covers business for WBEZ. Follow her @soosieon.