These days, when you call the Moses Montefiore Specialty School, the clerk on the other end of the line begins her greeting with these words: “Montefiore-Pathways, how can I help you?”
She is referring to Pathways in Education, a privately run, California-based group that operates three alternative schools in Chicago.
In late August, CPS quietly allowed Pathways to consolidate its campuses and move into the Montefiore building, in the city’s Near West Side neighborhood.
Activists say the decision is further proof that the district has, indeed, shuttered Montefiore. Over the summer, CPS fired all the teachers and enrolled students elsewhere. Still, officials insist that it wasn’t a closure.
“Why not just tell everybody that somebody else wants this building, that we’re going to move this private contractor in here because they need space?” asks Valencia Rias-Winstead, a member of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force. “It seems like CPS has found a loophole for closing schools.”
CPS officials say they have not broken a promise made in 2013 – after the Board voted to shut down 50 schools – to not close any additional schools for at least five years. Closures aren’t mentioned in a document CPS published on Oct. 1 outlining “school actions” it’s considering for the upcoming school year. (“School actions” include closures, consolidations, phase-outs, and co-locations, in addition to attendance boundary changes.) The district is, however, considering co-locations and attendance boundary changes, according to the document, which state law requires the board to produce each year.
“These guidelines also reaffirm our commitment that we will not close any facilities because of academics or underutilization,” CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said in statement issued on Oct. 1.
A teacher who was laid off from Montefiore over the summer scoffed at Claypool’s statement. She says she was called two weeks before the school year started and told to clear out any remaining belongings from the classroom. The school security guard “told me some school called Pathways” was moving in, she said.
Hundreds of students at Pathways
In fact, it was two weeks before before school started this fall that CPS gave Pathways a short-term site license to occupy most of the Montefiore building while the group’s other sites – in Ashburn, Avondale and Brighton Park – are undergoing building repairs and renovations. Pathways is paying about $90,000 to use the space from August 31 through Feb. 5, 2016.
“Since Montefiore does not have any enrolled students, the District is licensing a portion of that facility to ensure the needs of Pathways students are met,” a CPS spokesperson wrote in a statement.
According to the agreement, Pathways has the option to renew through the end of the school year if its permanent facilities are not completed by Feb. 5. The group is responsible for paying its own janitorial, IT and engineering costs.
A few students told Catalyst they hope to remain in the building past February because of its central location.
Last school year, more than 800 students attended the three Pathways campuses, according to district records. Meanwhile, the Montefiore building has a capacity for just 208 students, according to CPS building utilization data. Last year only a few dozen students attended Montefiore, a specialty school for students with diagnosed emotional and behavioral disorders. (CPS has not released this year’s 20th-day enrollment data for Pathways, or other contract or charter schools.)
Under the Pathways model, students attend school in short shifts, which allows the organization to educate multiple students per seat at its locations. One student who was waiting for a tour of Pathways during an open house for families in early October told Catalyst she was hopeful that “going to school for only four hours will help me not miss school anymore.”
Pathways officials did not return repeated requests for comment from Catalyst over the past several weeks. And during the open house, a Pathways administrator cited security concerns and ordered a reporter out of the building.
The CPS Board of Education did not have to approve the move because Pathways is technically considered an “alternative learning opportunities program” and not a “school,” district officials say. Championed by former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, this is a category of schools that has grown in recent years with little oversight from the district.
Catalyst and WBEZ reported earlier this year on the questionable quality of these privately run programs, which offer half-day schedules with many classes taught online.
The Catalyst/WBEZ investigation found that some of the operators are making hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit. Pathways is a non-profit, although the same individuals who run the organization also own companies that are paid to provide services to the non-profit.
Earlier this month, CPS officials abruptly announced that no more such alternative programs would be approved to open this year. District officials cited budgetary reasons for the decision.
A closure by another name
Two employees remain on staff at Montefiore: the school clerk and assistant principal, who make about $60,000 and $117,000, respectively, according to a June employee roster. It’s unclear what their jobs now entail as no students are enrolled at Montefiore; a district spokesman said they have been tasked with archival work. The school’s assistant principal declined to comment, referring all questions to the district’s press office.
Montefiore isn’t the only school CPS has in effect shut down since issuing the five-year moratorium, bypassing the state-mandated school actions process, which includes formal notice of proposed actions, public hearings and the opportunity for comment. Last school year the district closed Marine Math and Science Academy High School, which shared a building with Phoenix Military Academy on the Near West Side, and moved its students and staff to the Ames School building in Logan Square.
In the fall of 2013, the School Board had voted to add a military program and high school grades to Ames. When school started last fall, there were no students or teachers left at the old Marine Math and Science Academy building. They were all at Ames – now renamed Marine Leadership at Ames High School.
Montefiore and Marine Math and Science, “are both still schools. They are both operating units,” Todd Babbitz, executive director of the CPS Office of Strategy Management, said at a meeting Tuesday of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force subcommittee on school actions.
(The task force was created by the Legislature in 2009 to examine decisions made by CPS regarding educational facilities. It’s made up of lawmakers, in addition to representatives from non-profit organizations, CPS, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.)
Task force members looked incredulous as Babbitz said that by the district’s logic, what’s happened at Montefiore and Marine Math and Science doesn’t constitute a “school action.”
At various points during the meeting, task force members repeated that the state law that created the task force didn’t give it any teeth to hold CPS accountable for violating the school action process.
Jackie Leavy, who works as a pro-bono advisor to the task force, called for more “clarity on all of these shifting pieces of the facilities and academic configuration puzzle” – something she said was necessary as the task force waits for the district to update its 10-year master plan on facilities. The update is expected by early next year.
“If we don’t have all the moving pieces in focus as we’re thinking about the long-term plan, we may not achieve the clarity and the true purpose of the 10-year plan as the statute intended,” she said.