Chicago Board of Education approves school closures, turnarounds

  • By Jay Field
  • February 26, 2009 @ 7:26 AM

The Chicago Board of Education voted unanimously yesterday to consolidate, close, phase out or turnaround 16 city schools despite heated and sustained opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union, grassroots education groups and families in surrounding neighborhoods.

Scores of students, families and teachers will face big changes when the new school year begins in September.

Under the plan approved by the board, Nia, Foundations, Princeton and South Chicago elementary schools will close due to low enrollment.

Four more elementary schools — Abbott, Davis Developmental, Medill and Schiller — will consolidate into other schools nearby.

Carpenter, Lathrop and Reed elementary schools will stop taking students and be phased out, as will Best Practice High School.

And Bethune, Johnson and Dulles elementary schools and Fenger High School will have their staffs replaced in last-chance turnaround bids.

Board President Michael Scott defended the moves, pointing to the long history of failed interventions at Fenger.

“It’s been going on for 13 years,” says Scott, “and if they don’t have the capacity to make a change…as a board member… that’s just an anathema to me. That’s just a shame to allow children to be in a situation where you can’t get the best out of them.”

Scott, who just began his second tenure as board president, also noted the role economics played in yesterday’s decision.

“If you have a school with nineteen percent occupancy that was built to accommodate a thousand students,” says Scott, “and you’ve got another school over here that’s doing better academically, it makes good fiscal sense, it makes good educational sense to merge them.”

In fact, district leaders see consolidating and phasing out half-empty schools as financially vital moves, as the system faces a staggering budget deficit made worse by the deepening recession.

If Chicago Public Schools officials thought opponents of closures and turnarounds might be at least somewhat satisfied, after the district gave six other struggling and under enrolled schools a reprieve earlier this week, last night’s Board of Education meeting suggested activists will continue to fight.

Evidence of continued community outrage was on display in the form of a list of names Chicago Public Schools officials hand out as you enter the board chambers at 125 S. Clark St.

People on the list have signed up to give testimony during the monthly, two-hour public comment period. One CPS official noted that there were more names on the list than at any other time in the last four years.

As often happens, Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart was one of the first people to speak. She briefly thanked the board for sparing six of the schools. Then, Stewart delivered a rapid fire, two-minute indictment of the district’s closure and turnaround policy that was, by turns, defiant, confusing and humorous.

“I was looking at your slogan out there. It says, ‘Educate Me!’ It should be ‘Educate me, move me, inspire me, move me, transform me, move me,” said Stewart, in reference to one of the biggest criticisms of the district’s closure and turnaround policy: that it creates disarray in the lives of poor minority students by uprooting them and moving them around the system like pieces on a checker board.

“I think a moratorium on school closings is called for!” said Stewart, her voice rising for emphasis.

A grassroots coalition of education groups, including the Chicago Teachers Union, have been calling for a moratorium on school closings and turnarounds.

Their crusade got a jolt of adrenaline last week, when the Illinois House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee moved along a bill by Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago), calling for such a halt.

Soto’s measure, which now goes to the full House, also calls for a small group of state lawmakers to examine whether Chicago Public Schools is making the best use of its facilities.

But at a short news conference, CPS CEO Ron Huberman was quick to dispel the notion that his willingness to knock six schools off the closure and turnaround list means he favors a wholesale moratorium now or at anytime in the near future.

“The schools that have turned around have consistently shown progress,” said Huberman, “so I think it is unfair to make those kids in those low-performing schools wait, while we debate the different research.”