Controversy Around School Closings Heighten At CPS Hearings

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CPS Board of Education photo from Jan. 26, 2017. Andrew Gill / WBEZ
CPS Logo
CPS Board of Education photo from Jan. 26, 2017. Andrew Gill / WBEZ

Controversy Around School Closings Heighten At CPS Hearings

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It’s a return to the always-heated school closing season in Chicago.

For the last five years, a moratorium prevented school leaders from proposing any Chicago public school closings.

But that lifts this year, and Chicago Public Schools heads want to shutter four under-enrolled high schools in Englewood on the South Side. The four would be replaced by one new high school to open in fall 2019.

CPS held hearings this week on the controversial Englewood plan — which is opposed by some students and community members — as well as changes to other schools. The Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote on the proposals in February, including the closure of a Near South Side elementary school so it can be converted into a high school.

WBEZ education reporter Sarah Karp explains what she heard at this week’s hearings and dissects CPS’ new approach to the ever-thorny issue of school closings.

On CPS’ current approach to school closings

Sarah Karp: For now, just a little more than a year away from the next mayoral election, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not planning on closing a large number of schools. That’s despite the fact that the school system is essentially back to where it was before it closed 50 schools five years ago — with too many buildings and too few students.

But CPS does want to close a handful schools, and they are trying it in a different way. Instead of announcing plans to close a lot of schools and then asking folks what they think, they are doing way fewer and trying to get input early on.

But this has not stopped these official hearings from being emotionally charged. Closing schools are painful any way you look at it.

On the proposed Englewood school closings

Karp: CPS said this plan is what the community wants, but there was no community consensus at a hearing Wednesday night on closing the four schools and replacing them with one $85 million new building.

This meeting was raucous and passionate. A lot of the drama was caused by a group of about 30 mostly men who came to the meeting wearing West Englewood Coalition t-shirts. They were supporting the plan to build the new school and were organized by a longtime community resident who also serves as a member of what is called a Community Action Council, a group that CPS assembled that voted in favor the plan.

Another group, chanting “save our schools,” was made up of students that came to say they did not want their school to close. They said that their small school felt like a family to them and that they didn’t feel safe leaving the boundaries of the community.

On what happened at other school change hearings

Karp: There are several, but the most controversial is a plan to close an elementary school on the Near South Side near McCormick Place. This one is not about under-enrollment. Instead CPS wants the building it so it can convert it into a high school. The parents of the elementary school are very much against the closing of their school and they came out in force to a hearing on Tuesday night. The elementary school called NTA serves mostly black, low-income students and is high performing and not underutilized.

CPS district officials said this would create one of the most diverse high schools in the city. The district announced proposed boundaries this week to include Chinatown, the more affluent South Loop, and some of the mostly black Bronzeville.

But even here, there is controversy. Lots of people at the hearing, including some of the Chinatown residents, worry the new high school will be immediately at capacity and will have to turn away students.

On CTU’s efforts to stop the closings

Karp: The Chicago Teachers Union filed a grievance this week in an attempt to prevent the closures in Englewood and the closure of the Near South Side elementary school. It is not clear if it’s likely to succeed, but it could slow the process and it will almost certainly create a lot of uncertainty, especially for kids at these schools who have to find a new place to go next school year.

The grievance was filed with the school system’s new CEO Janice Jackson. In it, CTU said that the current contract precludes CPS for closing schools where students are meeting graduation requirements. CTU says the four Englewood high schools, as well as the Near South Side elementary school, are in fact meeting requirements.

CTU said in the best case scenario, Jackson would just abide by the contract and back off these closings. If that doesn’t happen — and it most likely won’t — the union could bring it to an administrative judge.

Meanwhile, the board vote on these closings could come as early as the February.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.