Chicago Analyzes Possible School Closure List

From 330 schools on the at-risk list down to 129, Chicago Public Schools are whittling down their list of under-used schools to close. The Chicago Tribune says that uncertainty that still surrounds the final number; Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah and John Chase report that city administrators have promised a final decision in March. The number of schools actually closed could be much, much smaller.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, is working on determining how to cut the list down to a realistic number of schools that will close after the city legislature gave the CPS a year's extension one year ago. The process involves careful analysis of each school, as well as a number of community meetings to hear from parents, teachers and community groups.

CPS initially said 330 of its schools are underenrolled, the chief criterion for closing. Members of a commission assembled to gather public input on the issue told CPS officials earlier this year that closing a large number of schools would create too much upheaval. The Tribune, citing sources, said the commission indicated a far smaller number should be closed than initially feared, possibly as few as 15.

Byrd-Bennett says that they are looking at each school to find reasons to remove it from the list, which has already shrunk to 129. The 200 schools taken off the list in the first round were under-enrolled but had other redeeming qualities. In some cases, it was because the schools got good academic ratings. Other schools were removed because the city aldermen who represent their districts had the political power to take them out of consideration, even if they met requirements otherwise.

On the Near Northwest Side, for instance, the initial list of 330 underused schools included about six in the 1st Ward. Ald. Proco "Joe" Moreno helped organize local school council members, school administrators and parents to fight any closing. He also took that fight to leaders in City Hall and within CPS' bureaucracy. Nearly all of the schools in the ward were excluded from the list of 129.

"Level 2" schools are not top academic performers, but they are not at the bottom. Any of the 33 schools in this tier may be taken off the list if they have shown improvements in enrollment and test scores over the last 3 years. Very low-performing schools that show significant improvement are also planned to be saved. The city is also considering population in the neighborhoods. If a school is more than a mile from other schools, keep it open will be a higher priority. Schools that could be closed will be kept open if the nearby schools are all too crowded to take in displaced students.

As the city tries to take an analytical angle, many critics believe that the budget shortfall is not as serious as officials are saying. They don't want their neighborhood schools closed, and in some cases they are worried about special-needs students who attend these schools.

Rodney Estvan, education policy analyst with disability rights group Access Living, said that although he believes CPS is "definitely thinking about issues like special needs," he worries about what will be done to schools with large numbers of special needs students. Thirty-nine of the 129 schools on the preliminary list take in students with disabilities from across the city, he said.

Even more controversial is that the city may continue to permit new charter schools to open, at the same time that public schools are half empty and closing. Some teachers and parents question why the city council is allowing more schools to compete and take away students, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel has supported charter schools' ability to give poor families choices that they would not otherwise have. In recently-released ACT score results, the top ten open-enrollment schools were all charter schools, and most were serving the poorest students. It's hard to overlook results like this when choosing what's best for the students, not just for the neighborhoods' sense of community.

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