The Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 public schools Wednesday, the largest round of school closings in recent American history.
Before the vote, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told board members, “I personally feel you’re on the wrong side of history, and history will judge you.”
But after two hours of final pleas by parents, teachers, aldermen and activists to save the schools, and after several raucous disruptions to the proceedings, board members voted unanimously to close 49 of the schools. One school, Von Humboldt, was closed on divided vote.
In addition to closing 50 schools, the board voted to replace the entire staff at five grammar schools and have 23 schools share 11 buildings.
Listen: WBEZ visits two of the spared schools
Chicago Public Schools officials have said the closures are necessary to operate the district more efficiently. They unveiled a list of 54 schools they wanted to close in March, after months of public hearings the district says attracted 20,000 people. School officials originally identified more than 300 schools as “underutilized.”
Despite opposition in the streets and at public hearings and some critical reports by hearing officers, that list of 54 closings held—until the eleventh hour. On Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett withdrew her recommendation to close four schools: Garvey, Ericson, Mahalia Jackson and Manierre. Byrd-Bennett also recommended delaying the closure of Canter Middle School for one year and sparing Barton Elementary from having its staff fired.
Ultimately, board members voted on more than 100 different proposals to massively restructure the school system next year and add to the programming in schools slated to take in students from closing schools. The one school with a divided vote, Von Humboldt Elementary, was closed on a 4-2 vote. Dissenting votes came from Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz and Carlos Azcoitia.
In testimony before the vote, Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) pressed board members to preserve Von Humboldt as the surviving CPS school in the East Humboldt Park community.
“I know you don’t want your legacy to be that you closed public schools in a neighborhood and have left zero schools remaining. I know you don’t want that, board members,” Moreno said.
Listen: Aldermen speak against school closings in their wards
The closings, turnarounds and co-locations will affect roughly 40,000 students and 120 schools, mostly on the South and West sides of the city. Eighty percent of the affected students are African American.
CPS officials made several last minute tweaks to the overall plan. More closing schools will get busing to their new school, bringing the total number of schools being provided transportation to 15. The additional schools are: Dodge (to Morton), Melody (to Delano), Parkman (to Sherwood), Wentworth (to Altgeld) and West Pullman (to Haley).
After the vote, board member Henry Bienen said many of the changes were made in response to the concerns of board members. Jesse Ruiz, who sat on the Illinois State Board of Education for several years before being appointed to the Chicago Board of Education, described it as the most difficult vote of his life.
Politics and education
Aldermen have no official say in what goes on at CPS, but many have been lobbying for months to keep schools in their wards open. In addition to Moreno, eight others showed up Wednesday to fight for schools in their communities.
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who has been at many of the public hearings over the past five months, said he almost didn’t show up to testify. “I’m worried that all those hearings were a charade. The decisions were already made,” he said.
Shortly after the meeting, the Chicago Teachers Union lambasted mayoral control of the public schools, and announced a new effort to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other elected officials because of the school closings vote.
“We will start registering people to become deputy registrars. We’re doing training… because clearly we have to change the political landscape in this city,” CTU president Karen Lewis said after the vote.
Lewis said allowing the mayor to control the public schools is an “absolute failed experiment and nightmare.”
CPS officials, for their part, have repeatedly said an elected Board of Education would only inject more politics into public education.
Making schools better
Chicago has been closing schools and opening new ones for more than a decade. But, overall, academic performance has not dramatically improved.
Still, board members, CPS officials and Mayor Emanuel maintain that closing schools will get students out of under-resourced, failing schools.
“I know this is incredibly difficult, but I firmly believe the most important thing we can do as a city is provide the next generation with a brighter future,” Emanuel said in a statement Wednesday evening.
A WBEZ analysis of school performance shows only three closings sending kids to a top-performing school. About one-third will send kids to equally low-performing schools. This was the case for three of the schools removed from the closings list at the last minute—Manierre, Mahalia Jackson and Garvey.
To help keep the promise that children would be going to better schools, the Board of Education approved significant investments for schools that will receive children from closing schools. Many of the receiving schools will get extra money and positions next year to implement new programs. Schools getting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs will receive $376,000 in startup funds and two extra positions, and schools implementing International Baccalaureate (IB) programs will get $255,000 and two positions. One receiving school, Haley Elementary, will get $237,000 to start a fine and performing arts program.
The Board last month approved spending $329 million to fix up the remaining school buildings; $217 million of that will go directly to schools impacted by closings, turnarounds and co-locations. The total cost will be financed by selling bonds.
Closing schools, opening schools
Buried in the school shake-ups voted on today were plans to open 13 new schools and a handful of alternative programs. Many of those have already been approved by the board.
“The questions that I keep hearing over and over again from my constituents, is, ‘How do we close schools, while simultaneously opening charter schools?’ and ‘Why are we closing schools to crowd schools to then eventually open charter schools?’” said Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who only has one charter school in his ward. Two of his ward’s schools, Courtenay and McPherson, are affected by the closings.
But a number of charter school parents, with a newly formed group that calls itself the Charter Parents United (CPU), spoke on Wednesday to ask for more funding. They claim charters are not funded equally with other public schools. CPS increased funding to charters this past year and officials have said the schools are funded fairly.
While they spoke mainly about funding, some of the charter school parents in attendance said they felt attacks on their children’s schools are unfair.
“We’re tired of being blamed for the choice that we made,” said Antoinette Sea-Gerald, a parent from Noble Street Charter School – Gary Comer College Prep. “Please, please, please continue to let us have our choice.”
“The school’s staying open?”
Before school started Wednesday, parents outside of Manierre Elementary were all smiles, after hearing the news that their school would remain open. Parent Charae Williams was walking her daughter to preschool when she heard the news from a WBEZ reporter.
“It’s going to stay open?” Williams asked. “Ooh, that is good! That’s amazing. I’m just so happy now.”
“I got a text from another parent…and I just immediately started crying,” said parent Shereena Allison. “It was a happy experience, but I hate the fact that all of the schools (were) not included in it.”
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Affected schools: Closures, turnarounds and receiving schools