Slow progress amid strife

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Protest at City Hall

Photo by John Booz

Protest at City Hall

A long-swelling crescendo of public outrage over school closings is coming to a head, and state and local lawmakers are pressing for changes that range from go-slow to stop.

In Springfield, a proposal is under consideration that would require Chicago Public Schools to give six months notice before closing a school. It would also establish a process for the public to give input and, if enough oppose it, put the question of whether to close a particular school to voters.

At the same time, a coalition of African-American and Latino state legislators, under pressure from angry constituents, threatened to withhold $100 million in school construction money from the district if the school closings continue. They later relented.

And one Chicago alderman wants a moratorium on further public school closings until a study is completed to determine how displaced students are faring in their new schools.

Schools CEO Arne Duncan defends closing low-performing schools as part of the district’s overall school improvement strategy. “I don’t want to lose another generation to the streets,” he appealed in front of television cameras at a January press conference. “These students in these neighborhoods need something dramatically better. And they need it now.”

Yet critics charge that children displaced by closings are landing at schools that aren’t much better, and may endanger their safety.

At first, CPS announced freshmen who next year would have gone to Collins High School, slated for closure this June, would instead be sent to either Manley or Crane, where test scores are the same or not much better. At a town hall meeting in early February, Collins’ founding Principal Grady Jordan drew this analogy for an indignant crowd gathered to oppose the closing. “Your children are on a sinking cruise ship when a call comes that a rescue boat is on the way,” he said. “However, that boat is also leaking. What they’re talking about doing makes just about as much sense.”

Since the closings began in 2002, more than 8,000 students have been displaced from 23 neighborhood schools, and despite signs of academic progress, most are enrolled in schools that are not much better than the ones they left. A Catalyst Chicago analysis of public school enrollment and student performance data found:

*Only 11 percent of all displaced elementary children are enrolled this year in charters or new contract or district-run schools opened since 2002.

*Just 10 percent of displaced elementary school students are now attending schools where at least half of children enrolled pass a standardized reading exam. Only 1 percent, or 47 children, are going to schools in what the district considers to be its top echelon—schools where pass rates are 70 percent or higher.

*This year, 67 percent of elementary school students displaced by closings were enrolled in schools on academic probation, though considerably fewer are in the worst of the bunch. Only 7 percent are now in schools where 20 percent or fewer hit targets on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills; previously 53 percent were in those schools.

*Students displaced from elementary schools that closed in 2004 posted higher gains in reading in their new schools the following year, yet their overall scores remain low.

An analysis by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that a sample of high school freshmen from the Austin community improved their attendance by an average of six days and failed slightly fewer courses.

Also, some of the elementary and high schools that received an influx of displaced students were struggling to get a handle on student safety and discipline. At least one elementary school hired an extra crossing guard to protect incoming displaced students who cross busy streets on their longer walk to school.

Switching schools once is not necessarily a big deal, says student mobility expert David Kerbow of the University of Chicago. But repeated moves from school to school—such as those forced on some children by multiple closings in the Mid-South area—and moves without supports can wreck havoc on a child’s academic performance.

CPS launched its school closing strategy in 2002, when it shuttered three elementary schools—Dodge, Williams and Terrell—and announced that two of them would reopen a year later.

They would be run by outside nonprofit groups and serve as prototypes for the Renaissance 2010 new schools initiative that would be unveiled two years later.

Students displaced by the Dodge and Williams closings were invited to return when those schools reopened, Dodge under the management of the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership, and Williams with four small schools. Children who did return posted higher test score gains than they did previously, according to CPS.

Since then, the district shut 16 more elementary schools, and began phasing out high schools by allowing existing students to remain but sending freshmen elsewhere. The first, DuSable, began in 2003, and was followed a year later by Calumet and Austin, and in 2005, by Englewood.

High school closings have forced displaced 9th-graders to enroll in high schools farther away from home, often in unfamiliar neighborhoods. When high school students are forced to trek across the city, possibly into rival gang territory, it can lead to poor attendance and dropping out, contends William Leavy, director of the Greater West Town Community Development Project.

At the end of this school year, Collins will no longer admit freshmen and three more elementary schools will close: Frazier in North Lawndale, Morse in Humboldt Park, and Farren in Grand Boulevard. A fourth elementary school, Sherman in New City, will get new staff but keep the same students.

Where are they now?

Displaced students and their parents describe a potpourri of experiences at their new schools.

Brittnay Bates, a 10th-grader who lives near Calumet, got sent instead to Hyde Park. She doesn’t mind the 30-minute commute and thinks her new school has a better academic reputation. But her mother, Brenda Bates, believes she would be more likely to stay after school for activities and tutoring if her school was closer to home. “She doesn’t participate,” she says.

Lucretia Davidson’s 3rd-grade twins landed in McCorkle after Hartigan closed in 2004. She doesn’t like the half-mile walk, but says the school is a big improvement despite being on academic probation. She rattles off a few pluses. McCorkle has a parents night, a science fair and Saturday tutoring. Teachers stay for after school tutoring; Hartigan had outside tutors who often didn’t show up. “There’s a vast difference,” she says.

Jeremiah Clay, a 7th-grader, returned to Williams after its yearlong closure and picked up immediately on the difference in faculty, who had intensive screening before they were hired.

“Before Williams closed down, the teachers didn’t care about you, what you got on your test or what went on in the school,” he says. Now, “the teachers really care. They’ll help you.”

Diane Hassell, former local school council chair at Grant, cried when the school board shut her alma mater last year, but was later thrilled to transfer her 8th-grade daughter to Bell Elementary in North Center, a high performing elementary school. “It turned [out] it’s a good opportunity for Shekia.”

Shekia was one of a tiny fraction of displaced students who were fortunate enough to land in a top-performing school. For the first time last spring, CPS offered kids from the three elementary schools slated for closure the opportunity to transfer to better-performing schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. About 1,000 kids from Bunche, Grant and Howland got dibs on this year’s 585 spots.

However, only 25 percent of the eligible students applied for the NCLB transfers, says David Pickens, deputy to the chief executive officer. Each closing school held an open house to announce the option. But many parents objected to sending young children across town, even on a school bus and to a better-performing school, he says. “‘It’s too far a distance for my child to go for me to feel safe,'” he recalls hearing. “Safety overrides everything.”

To find out whether children displaced by elementary school closings were doing better or worse academically, Catalyst analyzed reading test score data for students who were displaced from eight schools that closed in 2004. The results show some improvement: These children were closer to the district average in reading test score gains than they had been previously, only 6 percent below average instead of 23 percent.

For high schools, Catalyst asked the Consortium on Chicago School Research to conduct a case study of freshmen who were displaced when Austin High was closed. Students who went to one of the neighborhood schools that Austin freshmen were assigned to this year posted better attendance than their counterparts did a year earlier, down to an average of 26 days absent from 32 days.

Those freshmen also failed fewer courses, down to 3 from an average of 3.3, and their dropout rate declined from 10 percent to 9 percent. (However, the improved dropout rate may be due to a new law that raised the legal drop-out age to 17.)

Still, these freshmen on average earned only five course credits, too few to guarantee graduation in four years, says Macarena Correa of the Consortium.”Across the board they’re doing poorly,” she observes. “It doesn’t matter where they go.”

Violent incidents increase

Community residents also see safety risks for their children—longer walks and busy street crossings for elementary kids, and longer commutes on public transportation for high school students, sometimes into areas with rival gangs.

Indeed, a number of high schools with displaced freshmen have reported increasing violence. Gang fights at Harlan in Roseland are up after receiving 135 students from Calumet, the disciplinarian reports. Last year, Hyde Park received displaced students from Calumet, and violence doubled from the previous year. This year, with an influx of freshmen from Englewood, fighting is down, but still higher than before displaced students arrived. (See related story)

The Austin phaseout generated the most controversy, likely because two of the receiving schools—Wells and Clemente—are predominantly Latino, and residents from both the sending and receiving communities warned that racial differences would intensify gang conflicts. Both West Town high schools reported an increase in violence within the past two years. Clemente’s discipline office reported more than 20 group attacks on individual students, and an increase in fist fighting. Many teachers and students believe the violence was triggered by opposing gangs, although administrators were unable to verify that suspicion.

Still, Wells and Clemente reported fewer incidents of serious violence than did the old Austin High. Clemente’s figures rose from 35 incidents last year to 48 in the first half of this year alone. The year before Austin closed to freshmen, it reported 157 violent incidents, and total enrollment then was smaller than Clemente’s is today.

Catalyst interviewed 20 students from the Austin community who attend either Clemente or Wells, and all but two preferred to leave the neighborhood for schools farther away. Dexavier Vaughns, a 10th-grader, says his whole family attended Austin High, yet he feels safer at Clemente.

Little planning, few resources

Elementary schools reported fewer safety issues. Children from closed schools were often assigned to others nearby, where they often knew other kids. Those transitions tended to go more smoothly, school officials say. But in some sparsely populated areas, children were forced to walk farther into less familiar neighborhoods. At Gladstone on the Near West Side, discipline problems were serious enough last year for CPS to assign a part-time police officer, says Principal Gary Moriello. But disruptions died down this year as the displaced kids from Jefferson settled into their new school, he adds.

Pope in North Lawndale got almost 40 students from Howland when it closed, boosting its enrollment to 221, but also forcing children to cross a six-lane thoroughfare, says Principal Jacqueline Baker. When one child from the Howland area broke his leg, it took a month for the district to assign him a bus, she adds. “The kid had a broken leg and he had to walk.”

Meanwhile, school reform advocates complain that CPS has shuffled displaced kids from school to school with little planning and no extra resources. This year the board agreed not to close any elementary school that had been designated as a receiving school for displaced kids within the past two years.

Some schools receiving displaced children waited months for their school records to transfer. Many had been misplaced in a central office warehouse, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which uncovered that fact during investigations for a lawsuit.

Receiving schools didn’t get any extra support to bring the sudden influx of new underperforming students—anywhere from 20 to more than 200—up to speed. At Johnson Elementary, teachers were stretched thin when 85 extra students increased class size from 23 to 29, says Principal Sallie Pinkston.

And Laura Ward Elementary in Humboldt Park received 160 students, many of whom were functioning three to four years below grade level, reports Principal Relanda Hobbs. “It was very difficult for my teachers.”

Hobbs says she would have liked to ease the transition with a family night for her new students before the 2004 school year started. “When you sit down and eat with people, you build a rapport, and it doesn’t become an adversarial relationship.” But the names and records of her new students didn’t arrive until late summer—too late for her to host such an event.

Earlier this year, new guidelines for the district’s school closings policy were aimed at addressing some of those concerns.

Under pressure from politicians and community groups in North Lawndale, CPS agreed in March to open places at 14 other high schools for displaced Collins students who didn’t want to attend Manley or Crane.

“That’s positive, very positive,” says Julius Anderson, a retired principal and a leading organizer against the Collins closing.

Pickens says the board also intends to provide at least some receiving schools with extra resources such as reading or math coaches, security personnel, teacher training and supplies left over from the closed schools. But the district has not yet determined how much it can spend, he adds.

Laurene Heybach of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless says CPS ought to devote ample funds, given the millions they’ve raised for Renaissance schools that displaced kids may never attend. “They say, ‘We’re closing these low-performing schools.’ If that’s so, aren’t the kids who suffered there most deserving of help?”

 

Springfield correspondent Matt Adrian and intern Emily Horbar contributed to this story.

Contact Elizabeth Duffrin at (312) 673-3879 or duffrin@catalyst-chicago.org.