Chicago is braced for a critical vote by the Board of Education this week to determine if fifty-four schools will be closed.
Last week, parents of three children, two who have disabilities and a third who is black, filed a lawsuit at the US District Court in Chicago alleging that the school closings violate the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Illinois Civil Rights Act.
A second complaint, filed by the parents of three more children with disabilities, alleged the closings will occur too late in the year and don’t allow sufficient time for those children and their peers to transition to “unfamiliar” schools.
The parents sued on behalf of a proposed class of about 5,000 disabled students they say will be irreparably harmed by a transfer into new schools and for the 23 percent of the city’s black elementary-school children whose rights are allegedly being violated by the plan.…
“Every child in every neighborhood in Chicago deserves access to a high-quality education that prepares them to succeed in life, but for too long, children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed because they are in underutilized, under-resourced schools,” CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett said of the closings plan in a statement issued on March 21.
The announced closings spurred a weekend of protests in which activists claimed children’s lives will be put at risk when they are transferred to new schools, some of which are located in neighborhoods infamous for gun violence.
“There is no way [CPS] can keep people safe walking through this danger zone,” protester Jitu Brown shouted into a megaphone during a protest outside Overton Elementary School in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighbourhood—one of the schools slated for closure.
The Chicago Tribune reports, earlier this month, a man was fatally shot along the route that Overton students might take to their new schools.
The Tribune also found that, for children who aren’t eligible for busing, the average walk to a new school in the coming year will be almost twice as far as it is now, increasing from about a third of a mile to nearly six-tenths of a mile. Almost all the students—92 percent—at thirty-seven of the schools slated to be shut down currently have walks of four blocks or less. Sixty percent of that number walk two blocks or less.
CPS has claimed that 30,000 children will be affected by the school closings, but WBEZ fact-checked that claim and discovered the district’s plan will actually touch more than 46,000 children.
Additionally, WBEZ poked holes in officials’ claim that the City of Chicago lost 145,000 children in the past decade, making the soon-to-be-shuttered schools “under-utilized.” However, a drop in child population does not automatically mean a loss of students in CPS. In fact, WBEZ notes, between 2000 and 2013, actual enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has not decreased dramatically, and since 2000, the proportion of Chicago kids attending public schools has actually increased. For decades, the percent of city kids (ages 5–19) in CPS hovered around 65 percent, but in 2010, that jumped up significantly to 79.7 percent.
District officials calculate how under-used, overcrowded or “efficient” a school is by assuming every school should have thirty students in each homeroom. WBEZ reports that if you apply CPS’s own formula to the fifty-four schools proposed for closing, you find not all are “half-empty.” Fifteen have a utilization rate higher than 50 percent: Buckingham, Canter, Emmet, Ericson, Femi, Goodlow, Key, Mayo, Near North, Overton, Owens, Ryerson, Trumbull, Williams Elementary and Williams Middle.
Activists have challenged that formula. Rod Estvan, education policy analyst for disability advocacy group Access Living, says the utilization rates are “totally wrong” for schools like Trumbull and Lafayette because they have inordinately high proportions of special education students (30 and 28 percent, respectively).
CPS officials have admitted the formula does not take reduced special education class size requirements into account.
Furthermore, there is absolutely zero guarantee that children will be moving on to better schools, despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s claim that the key reason to close schools is about getting children “trapped” in low performing schools to a better place.
In a 2009 study of school closings, the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that between 2001 and 2006, most students whose schools were closed by the district re-enrolled in schools that were academically weak. Consortium researchers found that most students lost academic ground in the year their school was slated for closure. And once they were in their new school, they continued on an academic trajectory that was just like the trajectory of the closed school.
The Tribune recently reported that Ericson Academy on the West Side was targeted for closure by officials who claim it would cost $9.6 million to fix the fifty-one-year-old building, but what they didn’t point out in materials provided to parents is that they planned to spend nearly as much on repairs to Sumner Elementary, where Ericson students are to be reassigned.
District officials also claimed Calhoun Elementary, another school slated for closure, was being shut down in part because of its lack of air conditioning in every classroom. Yet records that were not part of the district’s presentation on closings show the designated replacement school, Cather Elementary, would require the installation of thirty-three window units to bring cooling in every room, the Tribune reports.
After reviewing documents related to the closings, the Tribune concluded, “In many cases, the district appears to have selectively highlighted data to stress shortcomings at schools to be closed, while not pointing out what was lacking at the receiving schools. In fact, total renovations to several of the schools slated to take in students would cost millions of dollars more than the estimated cost of fixing up the buildings where those children are currently enrolled.”
Michelle Rose, the grandmother of three students at Ericson, was furious when CPS sent a flier home contending that the school lacked the science and computer labs like ones promised at Sumner. This summer’s work at Sumner is only a start; the district estimates complete renovations will run a total of $24.5 million.
“We have two computer labs, two mobile computer labs, we have a science lab, we have two pre-K classrooms, so I don’t know why no one saw this,” said Rose, a volunteer at the school.
Emanuel and company claim the closings must occur because of budgetary shortfalls, but closing fifty-four schools won’t reduce the $1 billion deficit because all of that cost saving (plus tens of millions of additional dollars adding up to around $233 million) will go straight into receiving schools.
“We’ve assumed that we’ll have to spend in this first year an investment that we’ll make back over time with the savings that we’ll realize both in operating savings and cost avoidance of capital investment at these closing schools. So that’s the way we’re looking at it,” Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley told reporters on a telephone briefing March 21. (Check out the full WBEZ factcheck list on CPS closings.)
Zenitra Hodges, 23, of West Englewood, is studying psychology at Kentucky State University. She learned about one of the anti-closings marches Sunday morning and decided to join.
“My parents instilled with me the importance of education, but there are tons of kids who go without that,” she said. “So I’m here to help change that.”