School closings never go down easy. When Chicago Public Schools announced it would be closing three elementary schools and phasing out one high school at the end of the school year—the fifth round of closings in as many years—it again ignited a firestorm of community protest and controversy.
But this time, the backlash extended to black and Latino state lawmakers, who are demanding to be part of any future discussions on school closings.
Initially, they threatened to withhold funding for the district's school construction projects, then quickly they switched gears to draft legislation that provides voters a way to keep a school in their community open.
The measure passed the House overwhelmingly, 102 to 7, and, at press time, is in committee in the Senate. No doubt it has support there as well. For one, it was state Sen. Ricky Hendon who first issued the public threat to withhold funds. Later, he met privately with School Board Chairman Michael Scott and CEO Arne Duncan, a last-ditch effort to save Collins High School.
Kimberly Lightford, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, was still feeling the sting of being left out of the loop two years ago when CPS decided to close Austin High School. Then it happened again. Shortly before the district proposed the latest closings, Scott paid her a visit to lobby for more construction money—a proposal that would net $100 million for Chicago is on the table—but he did not mention the closings. Instead, she heard about them from Hendon, who had gotten word about Collins a day before the announcement was made.
Particularly galling to Lightford is the district's request for $16 million to fix up Austin's facility, which will be home to the new Business and Entrepreneurship Academy next fall. A few years back, when she had pushed CPS to put more money into Austin, nothing happened. "I'd been trying to get them to add an alarm system and fix the windows, and there was no interest," she recalls. "Now that Austin is a Renaissance school, they want $16 million and [there are] no kids over there."
She has reason to be disheartened about what is happening to the 580 juniors and seniors left behind at Austin as it phases out. "We don't have drama or band anymore," says senior Tremaine Smith. "They took away our sports and we don't have gym class. They took away a lot of the after-school programs, too."
Austin's teachers find it difficult to be motivated, too. "We know we still have to educate the children, so we try not to let ourselves get too frustrated, but it's hard," says William Bowman, chair of Austin's history department. "I know the kids sense it profoundly."
Meanwhile, grassroots advocates have been working with Ald. Michael Chandler to help pass a city ordinance later this month that would halt school closings entirely until a study is conducted on how children displaced by closings are doing in their new schools. Under that plan, the board would agree to release quarterly progress reports. "If we're restructuring schools, we should do it right," says organizer John Paul Jones of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group. "The district is putting all of these kids in the same predicament."
CPS is defending closings with a recent analysis of test scores that shows some of those students who were displaced had higher pass rates and higher gains a year later. The report, which tracked children who were moved out of 10 elementary schools in 2004, found children from only one school, Douglas, had done worse on average in their new schools. A couple dozen students who were diverted from Austin said they were happy not to be there.
It all adds up to slow progress amid a lot of strife. Perhaps there's a better way. One school to watch next year will be Sherman Elementary, which was spared closing and instead, will be restaffed with new faculty. It will be run by a proven nonprofit, the Academy of Urban School Leadership. Students get to stay.
No outrage. No protests, save routine grumbling from the teachers union. No displaced kids. Hopefully, it's not too good to be true.