Teacher Antoinette Thomas talks to a student in her morning preschool class at a South Side elementary school. Credit: Sarah Karp

On the first floor of Brown Elementary School is a room with colorful mats on the walls, a ball pit and calming low-intensity lights.

Principal Kenya Sadler proudly shows off this new feature of her school. Sadler raised private money to install it because she thought the specially designed environment would benefit the children in her schools’ two classes for children with autism.

Now, Sadler is desperately hoping that the room doesn’t wind up behind shuttered doors, unused. She’s also worried about the students in the autism program, not to mention the rest of her students, plus their parents, whom she fears will be left scrambling if Brown is closed. Brown’s building is 34 percent utilized and it is a Level 3 school, making it a prime candidate for closure.

Sadler’s concerns underscore one of the underlying factors in the hot-button issue of school closings. As enrollment dwindled at schools now considered underutilized, principals and central office administrators often took the opportunity to fill the empty rooms. Often, the empty space was transformed into classrooms for special education children—called cluster programs, since they drew children from a cluster of nearby schools—or into pre-kindergarten classrooms.

More on school closings

Schools still on the list after commission recommendations


Under-utilized schools continue to shed students

Most underutilized schools in black neighborhoods

History of school closings

Neighborhood high schools losing area students

Like the one at Brown for autistic students, special education cluster programs draw students with severe disabilities from all the other area schools.

More than half of all special education cluster programs are in underutilized schools, according to CPS data. Though CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has taken some of the underutilized schools off the table, a third of the schools still at risk of being shut down house special education cluster programs.

Advocates are worried that district officials are not taking a strategic look at special education. For one, they note that the utilization formula does not take into account the fact that separate, self-contained classrooms for special education students are legally mandated to have smaller class sizes. If the smaller classes were accounted for, some schools would not be considered underutilized.

In a letter to the School Utilization Commission, Rod Estvan of the group Access Living points out that if all schools on the list were shut down, CPS at a minimum would have to find space for 60 special education classes. Estvan calls that a daunting task.

Margie Wakelin, an attorney for Equip for Equality, says that a group of attorneys have raised the issue of what happens to students with disabilities in the midst of school closings. They fear that the closings will have a disproportionate impact on special education students.

When the district has shut down schools with cluster programs in the past, Wakelin says she has been contacted by parents who reported that their children didn’t get the needed special education services when they were transferred to new schools.

“To just say that the IEP (individual education plan) follows the child is not enough,” Wakelin says. Sometimes the receiving school doesn’t get a student’s complete file for months after the start of the school year.

Plus, it can be hard for children with emotional disabilities to transition to new schools, she says.

Preschools also an issue

Also, most of the schools still on the list—nearly 90 percent—currently house pre-kindergarten programs. At the same time city and CPS officials are making decisions about school closings, they also are in the process of re-distributing preschool slots, says Maria Whelan, president of Illinois Action for children. Early childhood officials are “well aware” of what is going on at CPS, she adds.

Brown Elementary, located on the Near West Side, also has a pre-kindergarten program. Though the rest of the grades might lack students, Sadler points out that the preschool has a waiting list.

The Near West Side has experienced an explosion in new residents, many of them families with young children. At Brown, neighborhood children come to the preschool, Sadler says, and it attracts a diverse group. But in kindergarten, the diversity disappears.

The neighborhood has a wealth of elementary school for these middle-class parents to choose from. Two new magnet schools opened over the past decade, and the Near West Side now has more specialty schools than any other community in the city.

Sadler says she has started a discussion with the preschool parents about what it would take to get them to stay.
“We are fighting against the grain,” she says.

Brown, however, is not alone in its dilemma. The principal of a half-empty school in Englewood says that whenever a child leaves his preschool, he can quickly fill the spot with another child from the waiting list. (The principal asked that his name not be used.) Englewood and other predominantly black communities have the most schools at risk of being shuttered.

This year, the principal says, he had to fill out a long application for the city’s new competitive process that will award preschool funding to schools and community organizations. It was an arduous task, one that he would rather have avoided if the school is going to be shut down anyway, he says.

If the school is closed or doesn’t receive preschool funds, he fears that neighborhood children won’t go to any preschool at all. Most of the children walk to the school with parents or older siblings.

“If it is too far, they will just leave the little ones at home,” he says.

Antoinette Thomas, who has taught in the preschool for nine years, says that providing the program to her students in the low-income neighborhood of Englewood is especially important. “If they take the preschool away, it will be a disservice to our community,” she says. “This is what levels the playing field.”

Inside the school, Thomas has a big classroom with a turtle and a hamster. Like most preschool classes, it is divided into different areas, such as the dramatic play area, the science area and the alphabet area.

Whelan says the city has devised an intricate process in which officials will look at small areas in a community and determine the demand for preschool. Funding will be awarded accordingly.

Because the school closing process and the preschool competitive process are happening simultaneously, Whelan is hopeful that children will not be left out.

“Right now, the early childhood program is extremely flexible,” she says.

Assets that parents want

Since special education and prekindergarten classes serve the most vulnerable students, advocates are especially worried about how they will fare under the closings process. But CPS data also shows that underutilized schools tend to have the assets that parents want.

According to CPS data, almost all elementary schools have libraries. The difference is that 90 percent of schools at capacity or overcrowded schools have a library and a librarian, but only 75 percent of underutilized schools have a librarian.

More than 80 percent of underutilized schools also have science labs and 96 percent have computer labs.
Sadler, like many principals, has used her classrooms to provide a slew of extras for her students—usually by relying on grants or outside partners to foot the bill.

Brown Elementary has a fitness center, paid for by the Chicago Bulls, whose parking lots are across the street from the school.  Sadler has arranged for a personal trainer from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition to work with the gym teacher on developing a program.

The school also has a STEM lab and a teacher to teach engineering, whose salary is paid for with a grant. 
One room is set aside for volunteers who come in on a daily basis to read with children who are struggling academically.  Sadler has recruited 75 volunteers.

Plus, Brown has a parent room, with a couch and computers donated by a partner. Parents can use the room to work on their resume, and some of the preschool parents come to hang out while their children are in the shorter program, which operates for 2-1/2 hours.

Yet Sadler doesn’t want the school to become a magnet or other specialty school. She wants it to remain a place where neighborhood students have the right to a seat.

“We have a lot of resources here and don’t want to be just another name on the list,” Sadler says.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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