Lawsuit seeks to stop school closing, alleging racial discrimination

Photo by April Alonso

Chicago Public Schools is planning to close National Teachers Academy, a top-rated elementary school in the South Loop, and turn it into a neighborhood high school.

Four parents of National Teachers Academy students are suing Chicago Public Schools to stop the district from closing their elementary school in the South Loop and turning it into a neighborhood high school.

In a lawsuit filed today, the parents allege that district officials used a racially discriminatory metric to close NTA — a decision they say will academically harm the mostly low-income and African-American students who will have to transfer to a new school. They also allege that CPS failed to follow a 2011 state law that governs school closures and mergers.

Photo by April Alonso

Parents, lawyers and other community members gathered outside National Teachers Academy on Tuesday as eighth-grade students celebrated their graduation. In recent months, many students have been outspoken critics of the district’s plans to turn NTA into a high school and to close four high schools on the city’s South Side.

“While a new high school in the South Loop may be convenient and desirable, CPS may not accomplish this goal by using discriminatory criteria, disproportionately burdening African-American schoolchildren and flouting important provisions in the law,” the lawsuit states.

The parents, along with an NTA parent group and an organization that works on school integration issues, are represented by attorneys at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, LAF (formerly the Legal Assistance Foundation) and the private firm Eimer Stahl. 

In late February, the CPS School Board voted to close NTA over several years, eventually sending all its students to the nearby South Loop Elementary School and turning its building into a high school that would serve parts of the South Loop, Bronzeville, Bridgeport and Chinatown by 2024. The same day, board members voted to phase out three Englewood high schools and close a fourth, as CPS builds a new $85 million high school for the neighborhood that will open next year.

They mark the first official closures since the expiration of a five-year moratorium on shutting down schools, which was put into place in 2013 when CPS closed 50 schools.

In an emailed statement, district spokeswoman Emily Bolton defended CPS’s plan for NTA, saying it would create more diverse schools in the neighborhood, give NTA families access to the “top elementary school in the area” and provide a better high school option for families that often send their older kids outside the neighborhood.

The lawsuit says it’s unfair that NTA kids will have to bear the brunt of that transition and lose services like a low-cost health center and Park District programming.

Parents and lawyers for the case held a press conference outside NTA as 8th graders gathered for their graduation.

“Today has been a long time coming,” said Elisabeth Greer, who chairs NTA’s Local School Council and will have children in third grade and kindergarten at the school this fall. “We have protested at community meetings, we have protested at board meetings and we have protested in the streets. And CPS has ignored us. Starting today, we will be ignored no longer.”

Photo by April Alonso

Denetta Jones is one of four parents who is suing Chicago Public Schools to prevent the district from closing National Teachers Academy in the South Loop and turning the building into a high school. Her daughters, who are going into sixth and fourth grades at NTA, already went through a school closure in 2013.

Several families at NTA already experienced a school closure and would be doubly impacted, the lawsuit states. NTA took in children displaced by the closure of Price Elementary in 2012, as well as some families impacted by the 2013 mass school closures.

One of those parents is Denetta Jones, who has children going into sixth and fourth grades at NTA and lives in public housing not far from the school. She enrolled her children there in 2015 after district officials closed her kids’ elementary school, Goodlow. According to the lawsuit and testimony Jones gave at a public hearing, her children struggled academically and emotionally at their designated receiving school, but have been doing better since transferring to NTA.

“Please do not close the school because my daughters have already been through an emotional trauma being displaced from one school,” Jones told district officials in January. “I do not want them to go through that again.”

Today, Jones said she was looking forward to telling her kids about the lawsuit, after they’d sat through many public meetings about their school’s uncertain fate.

“I feel we have a chance now,” she said.

Empty schools, empty promises

See our series on the aftermath of 2013’s mass school closings.

Past lawsuits to stop school closures have been unsuccessful.

In 2013, a pair of federal lawsuits, backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, alleged that the district’s proposed mass closures would disproportionately hurt special education students. They also said the closures discriminated against the mostly African-American students who’d be impacted.

A federal judge ruled that parents who filed one of the lawsuits failed to prove the students would suffer academically because they’d been assigned to higher-performing schools.

That’s a question at the center of this lawsuit, too.

To show the potential for academic harm, lawyers point to a recent study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research that found students impacted by the city’s 2013 mass closures had lower math and reading test scores the year the closures were announced and suffered long-term academic and emotional effects.

The lawsuit says the school NTA kids will have to transfer to, South Loop Elementary, isn’t higher-performing. The schools received the same top-tier ranking from the district, but CPS said South Loop had higher test scores. The lawsuit says it’s racially discriminatory to use this metric, as test scores are often an indicator of opportunities children had prior to starting school, while academic growth over time shows how much children learned in school.

The lawsuit also alleges that CPS offered inadequate transition plans for the NTA students and failed to provide evidence that members of the community requested to turn NTA into a high school before CPS put out its own proposal.

CPS says black students both score higher and grow faster at South Loop Elementary, and that the district is devoting significant financial and staff resources to transition students from NTA to their new school.

Candace Moore, a lawyer for the NTA parents, said she thought the case stood a better chance than similar discrimination lawsuits filed over past school closures because it focused on one school and a district policy that allegedly led directly to discrimination, instead of many schools and decisions that were not part of any official policy.

“We think there is a pretty clear-cut case,” Moore said.

This story has been updated since publishing.

  • This is an interesting case because parents at NTA want kids to stay in a school that is predominantly black, rather than go to a school with white kids, and the scores are nearly the same at the two schools. An additional factor is that South Loop school is getting a new building with state of the art science labs, and that will be new to any students who attend when the building is completed.