Student learning plans, improving school culture will be part of this year’s school turnarounds

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As he announced the list of 14 schools to be closed and turned around next year, CEO Ron Huberman took pains Tuesday to stress that he was incorporating lessons learned from the mistakes of past administrations and reform efforts–including the lesson that it makes no sense to close a school only to send its students to another school where performance is just as bad or worse. 

As he announced the list of 14 schools to be closed and turned around next year, CEO Ron Huberman took pains Tuesday to stress that he was incorporating lessons learned from the mistakes of past administrations and reform efforts.

One of those lessons is that it makes no sense to close a school, only to send its students to another school where performance is just as bad or worse. That is exactly what happened in many cases in the past, according to a recent study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Huberman said school officials stayed up late many a night to make sure that doesn’t happen again. At a press conference on Tuesday, Huberman went through a presentation to prove that this year’s receiving schools are better performers than those being closed.

Meanwhile, the district has plans this year to take special care of the students who are displaced. They will each be given individualized learning plans and given help with transportation. The receiving schools will get money to extend the school day, providing more time for learning.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis found that, indeed, Huberman did pass up closer poor-performing schools to send students to better ones. 

“When you close a school, it is never easy,” he said as he explained the decision to close Curtis Elementary School in the far South Side neighborhood of Roseland. With less than 40 percent of students at or exceeding standards, Huberman said Curtis was one of the worst schools in the district. 

“We had to ask ourselves, ‘What do Curtis students need?’ ” Huberman said. “As unpopular as closing a school is, students in that community deserve to go to a school where they can succeed academically.”

Huberman noted that for the first time, the district also will reserve seats in two magnet schools for students of a closed school.

The district will hold hearings on the proposed closings and turnarounds over the next month, and the actions must still be approved by the School Board. Two of the elementary school turnarounds and one of the high school turnarounds will be handled by the not-for-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership. The district will manage the others.

High school lessons

Another lesson learned, especially when it comes to high schools, is that what happens in the classroom is only a part of the battle. Just as important is the culture of a school: When that is chaotic or dysfunctional, the school will continue to tank.

Huberman noted that at Marshall and Phillips, a dysfunctional culture kept High School Transformation, Arne Duncan’s $80 million program of new curricula and teacher training, from taking root. 

Those schools will be turned around, issuing pink slips to those teachers that the district spent money training. Still, Huberman said the district “learned a lot” from High School Transformation, which is still in place in about 40 schools.

In addition to new staff and leadership, turnaround schools get an infusion of cash, much of which is spent on social-emotional programs and teaching teachers better classroom management. The amount given to each school has differed, and CPS officials did not say how much schools will receive.

Jitu Brown, education organizer for the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, agrees that school cultures must improve. But Brown said the turnaround process has been too top-down. He also suggested that Phillips, which is low-performing but is not the worst among city high schools, was targeted because of gentrification.

“We think that these schools are being changed to accommodate the people moving into the neighborhood,” Brown said. “They don’t want to send their kids to private schools, but they want the public schools to give a good education to their kids.” 

Students and teachers at Phillips received the news today. Some of the students were caught off-guard and blamed their classmates for the school’s poor performance. But others said they welcomed the change, criticizing some of the current teachers as disrespectful or confusing.

At Gillespie in Roseland, most parents were not happy, and local school council member Anthony Stallworth said there is an effort underway to protest the turnaround. He says the school has vastly improved under Principal Michelle Willis, who has been there about three years. 

“She walked into chaos – when I first got here four years ago, the school was totally out of control,” Stallworth said. “The school’s doing a lot more things better right now than it used to.”

He credits Willis with bringing two new computer labs, a math specialist, and a science lab to the school.

Stallworth also says Willis conducted something of her own turnaround by firing much of the old staff and hiring new people, adding that doing it again will only mean more disruption for students. 

Contributing: Rebecca Harris, Dominique Baser

CLOSINGS

Curtis Elementary

Guggenheim Elementary

Prescott Elementary

Las Casas Occupational High School

CONSOLIDATIONS

McCorkle

Paderewski

Marconi

Mollison

PHASE-OUT

Schneider

TURNAROUNDS

Deneen 

Gillespie 

Bradwell 

Phillips High

Marshall High