With Chicago Public Schools slated to announce school actions Friday – and with a five-year moratorium on school closings expiring – one looming question is whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans another massive round of closings to address the continued steep decline in enrollment.
Unless I’m mistaken, that’s not likely with less than 18 months to go till the next mayoral election. I suspect the tremendous pushback he got for closing 50 schools in 2013 has taught him to move a little less precipitously.
But beyond closings, the more curious aspect of school actions is why, up till now at least, CPS has continued to open schools as enrollment drops.
While Emanuel closed neighborhood schools, citing “under-utilization” and the need to “right-size” the district, he’s also opened 40 charter schools, many within blocks of shuttered schools, according to a recent study. Since 2000, CPS has opened 108 charter schools, and 62 percent of those are in areas experiencing “high population loss,” the study states.
Advocates for neighborhood schools argue that this situation reveals a major flaw with the district and City Hall: the lack of long-term school facilities planning. Instead, the district seems to be following an ideological agenda arguing for more “school choice” and “quality schools,” regardless of the facts on the ground and the concerns of parents and educators.
This lack of planning is a long-standing problem that the state Legislature tried to address in 2011 with a bill mandating a public process for facilities planning. CPS has generally followed the letter of the law and issued the required reports. But it has not adhered to the spirit of the law with a comprehensive, inclusive, ongoing process that is transparent and allows the public to hold officials accountable.
“There’s been no effort to really get into communities and talk to people about what’s happening with their schools,” said Jennie Biggs, a Bridgeport parent activist with Raise Your Hand. Biggs participated in meetings of the legislature’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, a watch-dog for CPS until 2016. One of the goals of the 2011 legislation was to bring local school councils into the mix, but “there’s been no effort” on that front, she said.
CPS has established Community Action Councils, but these are run by the district—not elected, as local school councils are—and don’t cover all areas of the city.
“A real, comprehensive facilities plan with robust, authentic community engagement is sorely needed for CPS,” Raise Your Hand said in a statement this summer.
The 10-year facilities master plan required by the law has not addressed big-picture issues. A 2013 plan mainly made the case for that year’s school closings; the task force criticized it for, among other things, focusing on the effects of the housing crash and ignoring prospects for neighborhood revitalization. A 2016 draft update discusses new construction for schools that are operating over capacity, but has no citywide focus and says nothing about charter schools opening in areas with declining enrollment. And there have been no opportunities for public discussion of the draft.
That’s one reason Raise Your Hand is calling for a pause in school actions for 2017-2018. The district’s facilities plan should drive planning and decisions on school actions; but without public comment, decisions may be driven by bureaucratic whim. Without public comment on the draft, “newly proposed actions should be postponed,” according to a statement from the group.
Another reason for a pause, according to Raise Your Hand, is that CPS failed to submit current space utilization data last December, as required by the 2011 law. The existing utilization standards “use a flawed formula and are educationally unsound” because they fail to take room size and usage, particularly by special education programs, into account, according to the group.
“We believe [the failure to file the required report] is a violation of the law,” they add.
Another organization pushing for a “hold” on school actions is Generation All, which advocates for neighborhood high schools. The district’s emphasis on opening charter and selective enrollment high schools, plus a big expansion of alternative schools run by charter operators and for-profit companies – has “created a tiered system” that sorts students by achievement and socio-economic level. Coupled with an overall enrollment decline, neighborhood high schools have been left without resources—yet they serve 42 percent of all high school students, including a majority of the district’s low-income students of color, according to a 2016 report by the group.
Noting that “decisions about where to open and close schools in Chicago have been made behind closed doors without a clear and publicly expressed rationale or a long-term, citywide plan,” Generation All calls for “a hold on the closing and opening of public high schools until there is an inclusive, citywide planning process that considers neighborhood needs.”
“To us, the biggest issue is that there doesn’t seem to be citywide coordination,” said Beatriz Ponce de Leon, executive director of the group. She says school improvement needs to be linked to neighborhood improvement, and advocates for community schools that would take advantage of the extra space in underutilized buildings to provide services, from health care and counseling to job training and small-business incubation.
Ponce de Leon also cites a large body of research she says shows that schools that are integrated by socio-economic and academic levels are better for everybody.
At least two actions related to high schools are being planned by CPS: the closing of four Englewood high schools that would be replaced by a single new building; and the conversion of the National Teachers Academy, now an elementary school, into an open-enrollment high school in the South Loop. Ponce de Leon notes that the Academy proposal reflects the widespread desire among parents for good neighborhood high schools, including schools for students who don’t make it into selective schools (which accept only about 10 percent of applicants).
Both proposals need more thought and discussion, Ponce de Leon thinks. Some Englewood students may face safety problems traveling to a new school, and she wonders what could be achieved if the money for a new building were spent on existing schools. The South Loop proposal involves closing “a successful school serving a low-income black community,” she said, and it’s not clear that future facility needs have been adequately considered in this fast-growing neighborhood.
As for charters, CPS is likely to propose closing a few low-performing campuses, though this could pave the way for expansion of larger networks and potentially lead to “charter monopolies,” as Roosevelt University professor Stephanie Farmer told me a few months ago.
This whole approach, in which CPS makes decisions willy-nilly because of political pressures or hidden agendas, and without significant community input, has not served Chicago students and their families well. There’s a lot of interest and desire among parents and residents to be involved in making schools better. CPS would be smart to embrace it.