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Study: 2013 Chicago School Closings Failed To Help Students

Despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s promise that mass school closings in 2013 would lead to a “brighter future,” Chicago students didn’t benefit academically and on average their performance suffered, particularly in math, according to a University of Chicago Consortium on School Research study released on Tuesday.

The groundbreaking study goes on to report that for students and teachers, the transition was traumatic and chaotic.

Previous studies also have found that school closings hurt children. But this time, city and school district officials said they could mitigate the damage by investing $180 million in schools that took in children from underenrolled closed schools and with a logistics company to make the transition smooth.

The study is the first in-depth examination of the impact of the 50 school closings — the largest number closed at once in the United States. Some 11,000 students attended the closed schools, and another 13,000 students attended the schools that received them. All told, 95 schools buildings were packed up and moved.

“Closing schools even poorly performing ones does not improve the outcome of displaced children, on average,” the study concludes. “Closing under-enrolled schools may seem like a viable solution to policymakers who seek to address fiscal deficits and declining enrollment, but our findings shows that closing schools caused large disruptions without clear benefits for students.”

Emanuel did not comment on the findings. CPS had said that closing the 50 schools would save $43 million annually and $437 million over time by not having to fix or maintain the shuttered buildings. But the school district has never provided any detailed information on whether those savings were or will be realized.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson was a Chicago principal at the time of the school closings in 2013. She called what happened "unacceptable" and said she is focused on learning from that experience as CPS continues to close schools. (WBEZ/Andrew Gill)

CPS’ current Schools Chief Janice Jackson called what happened “unacceptable.” But said the outcome will not deter her from closing schools in the future. At the time of the closings in 2013, Jackson was principal of a West Side high school.

“We acknowledge that it was imperfect,” she said. “For me, I can focus on the learnings that came out of that.”

After taking a five-year break from school closings, the Chicago Board of Education voted in February to shutter one elementary school and four high schools. Jackson is allowing most current students to stay until they graduate and she is providing extra support for students before and after they graduate.

Research predicted this outcome

Consortium researchers note that previous studies found school closings didn’t help students academically unless they ended up in dramatically better schools or if the closures resulted in few disruptions. That didn’t happen in 2013 in Chicago. They also said studies show test scores tend to decline in the year of the school closing, as they did in 2013 in Chicago.

Those previous studies found test scores recovered in subsequent years. But this study found that for the 11,000 students who moved from closed schools, math scores on average have yet to catch up four years after the closings, though reading scores did. Math scores declined by roughly two months; reading scores declined by about 1.5 months.

West Pullman Elementary School marked its very last day with this sign in 2013. It closed as part of the largest mass closing of schools in the nation's history. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

The new consortium study compared the performance of students in closed schools with others in poor-performing, high-poverty, underutilized schools in 2012-2013 that did not close. On average, these students, like all students in CPS, saw their test scores improve. But the study found students from closed schools would be doing better had their schools stayed open.

The study also found that student grade point averages declined slightly over time, especially for students in third through fifth grades in 2013. This is worrisome because grades are predictive of ultimately graduating high school, more so than test scores, the researchers said.  

On a positive note, consortium researchers found no increase in absenteeism, mobility, or suspension rates among students from closed schools. However, they say these metrics could be affected by changes in policy, rather than in the behavior of students or the relationship of schools to students.

Staff and students felt disrespected

The study not only looked at test scores; it also included extensive interviews with affected students and staff at six schools. Emanuel and CPS leadership had pledged to make the receiving schools better than the ones they were closing. They would be repaired, repainted, provided libraries, science labs, and top-notch technology.

They also were all given Safe Passage workers to watch over students as they walk to and from schools. Students and staff point to those workers as one of the most beneficial change enacted.  

Then-CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett greets a Safe Passage worker after she spoke during a training session at Chicago State University on Aug. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

But these interviews paint a damning picture of a chaotic process where even fundamental tasks were flubbed as CPS rushed to close and merge schools in just three months. CPS voted to close the schools in late May, 2013. Principals and staff told researchers that textbooks and instructional materials were lost in the move. And, when staff arrived in August to open the school year, some of the receiving schools were unclean and upgrades were unfinished.

“Ultimately, teachers and staff in the six schools interpreted these losses as a sign that the district did not respect staff or care about the students in these schools. As one teacher explained, ‘CPS doesn’t care. They just don’t care, and it shows,’” according to the report.

As for the technology and new programming, staff appreciated the investment, but many of the schools were not able to sustain them because of budget cuts. Schools got new iPads, which were a hit with students and staff, but there was little training on how to use them for instructional purposes.

The year after the merger, teachers also reported a spike in “conflict and disorder,” and students said there was more bullying and fights. Over time, it lessened but did not return to the levels before the the closing, according to the study.  

It was not just staff and students from closed schools that were affected. The study found that students in the receiving schools also suffered. More than expected transferred out of the receiving schools in the year of the school mergers.

A lone student walks down a hallway at the Jean de Lafayette Elementary School on the final day of school in 2013. Lafayette was one of the 50 schools closed by Chicago Public Schools. (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

Also, the test scores of students in the receiving schools dropped in the first year, though they rebounded. Like the students from the closed schools, the receiving school students told researchers they mourned the loss of the culture and family feeling they had before the mergers.

Consortium researchers say they hope CPS officials take note of the study and incorporate the findings as the school district contemplates more closures. In the five years since the mass closures, student enrollment has continued to drop dramatically. Lead author Molly Gordon said she doesn’t think Emanuel or other officials meant for there to be negative outcomes.

“Policymakers make decisions and they hope for a specific outcome or result,” she said. “But not all the intended benefits play out in reality.“

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

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