Even though CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has pledged that no charter schools will go into school buildings vacated this year, the concern over the possibility has been raised so much in some quarters that it has risen to the level of a conspiracy theory.

The basis for this: It has happened in the past, even as recently as this school year, when the shuttered Lathrop Elementary reopened as KIPP Ascend Primary. Of the 75 schools that have been closed, consolidated or phased out over the past 12 years, 40 percent (30 schools) are run by private operators under CPS contract, 40 percent by the district and 15 are either vacant, have been demolished, now house private schools or are used as district administrative offices.

The fate of all the schools that have been subject to some action, whether closure or turnaround, gives a glimpse into what can be expected this year as CPS embarks on what is expected to be the largest number of closures ever. Byrd-Bennett has said she has no exact number in mind, but reports have indicated officials are considering closing as many as 100 schools considered under-utilized.
An analysis of school closings and other actions found that:

  • Fifteen percent of the replacement schools (those located in buildings where either closure or turnaround has occurred) were rated “Level 1” by CPS, the highest performance level, according to the most recent data. Thirty-two percent were rated “Level 3,” the lowest rating CPS gives, and 20 percent did not have enough data. When looking only at closed schools turned into new schools, 45 percent were level 3.
  • Closings and turnarounds have disproportionately affected African American schools on the West and South Sides. Humboldt Park and the Near West Side had the most, followed by Grand Boulevard. South Chicago had the third most school closings.
  • Closings are clustered around former Chicago Housing Authority developments.
  • Almost all of the schools that closed were neighborhood schools with attendance boundaries. Now, half of the replacement schools admit students by either lottery or test scores.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll has said the point of this round of school closings is to shrink the district’s “footprint.” However, district officials say they will continue the expansion of charter schools.

This year, new charter schools are being put in neighborhoods that have overcrowded schools and those in need of “quality” schools–which could be the same neighborhoods where schools are closed.

CPS officials also have yet to announce which schools, if any, will be turned around this year, a process in which most or all of an entire staff is replaced. In the past, 65 percent of turnaroundshave been managed by the not-for-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership.

Vacated buildings were taken over mostly by charter schools as part of a strategy launched under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

On April 10, 2002, then CPS Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan announced CPS would permanently close three schools it said were chronically low-performing and not improving—Williams, Dodge and Terrell. The district vowed to open completely new schools at Williams and Dodge, while Terrell would remain closed due to declining enrollment.

“We don’t believe these schools as they currently exist will ever measure up,” Duncan said at the time. “There are better education alternatives within walking distance.”

It was Chicago’s introduction to “renaissance” schools, which became a full-fledged strategy under Daley’s Renaissance 2010 plan to close 100 low-performing schools and open new ones, mostly charters. The hope was that a new school or an outside entity other than the school district could create higher-performing schools from the ashes of those shuttered.

Since then, CPS has closed or completely re-staffed more than 100 schools. The announcement of “school actions”—closings, consolidations, turnarounds—has occurred annually since 2002, and has provoked anguished criticism that has still not dissipated.
Building on a map created by Catalyst Chicago and WBEZ last year, WBEZ plotted annual school closings and turnarounds since Williams, Terrell and Dodge.

The chart and map show where schools have been closed or turned around, what’s become of the old buildings and how well the new schools in those buildings are performing.

—Jane Verwys created the graphics for this article. Reporting was a joint effort of WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago.


Becky Vevea

Becky Vevea is a political reporter for WBEZ Chicago.

Headshot of Sarah Karp

Sarah Karp

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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