Proposal calls for new Renaissance schools to muscle out neighborhood elementaries

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CPS officials are proposing moving out five neighborhood elementary schools so that their buildings can be turned over to new schools opened under the Renaissance 2010 initiative, including two charter schools. CPS has already spent nearly $17 million readying the buildings for these new schools, according to a Catalyst analysis.

CPS officials are proposing moving out five neighborhood elementary schools so that their buildings can be turned over to new schools opened under the Renaissance 2010 initiative, including two charter schools. CPS has already spent nearly $17 million readying the buildings for these new schools.

About 4,800 students are in schools that will be consolidated.

Interim CEO Terry Mazany also announced on Wednesday that he plans to recommend the dismantling of the four small schools within Bowen High School and to make it once again a comprehensive high school.  Mazany made this announcement at a pre-board meeting press briefing on Wednesday.

Considering Mazany is still projecting that CPS is facing a budget deficit of $720 million and that the district has 100-plus schools that are more than 50 percent under-utilized, these moves are minimal. (In fact, three of the actions are at schools already being phased out.) About 100 teachers and at least eight principals will lose their jobs. But in the short term, these consolidations will not result in any major savings as the buildings will not be sold.

Community and public hearings will be held over the next month, and these items will be on the agenda at the April board meeting. The April board meeting would be Mazany’s last if Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel does not appoint him as CEO and brings in someone new by May 16, when he takes office.

Mazany said that these proposals were time sensitive and were done in the interest of efficiency. The schools being consolidated have such dwindling populations that it doesn’t make financial or academic sense for students to remain there, Mazany said. Also, the new schools are in need of the space.

 “These are neighborhoods with too many empty elementary seats and a dearth of performing high schools,” Mazany said.

The proposal calls for:

•    Three high schools to get their own building next year. Ogden High School  will displace Carpenter, which will be consolidated with Talcott; Alcott High School for the Humanities will displace Schneider, which will be consolidated with Jahn, and Beidler students will move into the Cather building to make space for Urban Prep of East Garfield Park.

•    One charter school is to get its own building in the future. Tilton Elementary in West Garfield Park will be phased out so that eventually Talent Development High School will have Tilton’s building.

•     LaSalle II, a magnet elementary school, will take full reign over Andersen’s building next year instead of continuing to share a building.

•    Avondale Elementary and Logandale Middle School, two schools on the same block, will become one school and the Avondale administration will fold.

“The reality of Chicago Public Schools going forward is that it will have to look at schools with minimal students that are not performing and the opportunity for new high performing schools,” Mazany said.

But community activists and some parents, long worried about how new schools would impact their traditional neighborhood ones, were quick to sound alarms about these school actions. One common concern is that the new schools would move to the top of the capital improvement priority list, overtaking long neglected neighborhood schools.

A Catalyst Chicago review of capital improvement projects shows that the five new schools are getting buildings that CPS spent an average of $3.3 million on over the past two years, totaling $16.9 million. Meanwhile, the buildings that neighborhood schools will be consolidated into received, on average, $414,000 worth of renovations, or a total of $1.6 million. 

That’s not including a $2.2 million campus park approved Wednesday for Beidler.

At Beidler Elementary, parents and staff can just look out the window to see this happening. LSC president Bettye Sherrod says a fence is up as construction gets underway on a campus park. The LSC and staff fought for the park for at least eight years. It is set to include a garden, playground equipment and basketball court with portable rims.

“It is a long time coming,” Sherrod said.

But on Monday, she learned that CPS leaders planned on giving Beidler and the new campus park to Urban Prep Charter School. Sherrod has nothing against Urban Prep, but thinks they should get their own nice new building, while Beidler gets to keep theirs.

“It is just not fair, and we are going to fight it,” she said.

Sherrod also worries about students from Beidler having to go to Cather. She notes that even a few blocks can change the gang territory and that can open children up to danger.

Urban Prep Vice President for Development Evan Lewis said the charter school’s officials were just as shocked. They, too, read about the proposal in the newspaper.

“It is the first we have heard of this,” he said. “We have not had an opportunity to vet it.”

Such scenarios put other school communities on edge. While Mazany was holding his pre-board meeting press briefing on the consolidations, parents, staff and community members were holding a small rally in support of neighborhood schools.  Among those present were parents from Penn Elementary School, which currently shares a building with KIPP Ascend Academy Charter School.

LSC President Anthony Patton said that this year, KIPP is taking more of Penn’s classrooms and he is concerned that eventually Penn will be swallowed up. Special education teacher Cielo Munoz added that CPS officials promised Penn that they would be able to keep classrooms; she would like that in writing. 

Cecile Carroll, education organizer and co-director of Blocks Together, said that she’s frustrated that CPS officials didn’t go through the steps outlined in a recent report issued by the Education Facilities Task Force. She is a member of that legislative task force, which recently recommended that state law require CPS to be more transparent with capital decisions and to produce an educational impact statement for students who are displaced.

“One school should not be left to fall to pieces, while another school gets resources,” Carroll said. “One of the overarching themes from the task force is that there should be equity in facilities decisions.”

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis appeared before the board in tears to protest the proposed consolidations.

“Last spring, Ron Huberman vowed that parents and administrators would be involved in planning any proposed school actions,” she said. “I’m a little concerned because it doesn’t seem like that change has taken place.”

“I view this as a time of special circumstance,” Mazany responded, because there were no proposed school consolidations when he took office in December.

“Our problem, again, is with the process,” Lewis said.

To some degree, Andrew Broy, president at the Illinois Network for Charter Schools, agreed with Lewis. He said officials should “find a comprehensive facilities solution that works for all students,” rather than pitting the needs of neighborhood schools against those of charters. He said CPS had not met its obligation to help charter schools find sufficient space.

The other school about to go through a transition is Bowen High School. With the unifying of the Bowen small schools, one of the district’s experiments in fixing failing high schools will officially be over.

The idea behind small schools was that more intimate environments would spur strong relationships between students and teachers and fewer students would disengage or fall through the cracks. Bowen had small schools throughout the 1990s but they were disbanded when the school was put on intervention in 2000, then reinstated in 2002, when the $18 million high school redesign initiative was announced. Bowen, along with South Shore and Orr, were divvied up into small schools.

But student achievement did not improve significantly, an outcome that mirrored the lack of progress in small high schools across the country. Orr disbanded its small schools in 2008 when it became a turnaround school. This fall, South Shore High School will become one school, as a new one starts in a new building.

Mazany, who as a foundation leader was involved in the conversion of Bowen into small schools, said that he has come to believe that low-performing schools can’t be transformed by that model.

“[The small school model] might be able to take a good school to a great school, but it is not a remedy for low-performing schools,” he said.

The four Bowen schools will all be part of New Millennium High School, the highest performing. small school at Bowen Currently, New Millennium has a strong health profession component, but under one umbrella, the students will be able to have other focuses.

While Mazany seems to be treading lightly with school closings, he does intend to leave a detailed budget proposal for the next CEO. Mazany said he won’t try to make some of the big, controversial decisions.  District officials also said that they won’t base their budget on a tax increase. “That is a decision the new mayor will have to make,” Mazany said.

The $720 million deficit projection includes a promised pay raise of 4 percent for teachers.

District officials could declare that they can’t afford the increase and re-open negotiations with teachers. But Mazany said he is not talking with union leaders about that. He will offer up a recommendation to the next administration and allow them to pursue it.

A third of the budget deficit comes from the fact that the state owes the school district $236 million. Former CEO Ron Huberman dealt with late payments from the state by taking out a line of credit. Mazany didn’t rule that out, but noted that each time the district uses credit, it costs money in the long run.

Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation of Chicago, said there’s no standard way for school districts or government agencies to deal with late payments from other government agencies. “It is a very unusual situation,” he said.

A big factor that school officials should consider is when the state will pay, if ever.  Msall notes that, even with the income tax increase, Illinois is in bad fiscal straits. Gov. Pat Quinn and lawmakers are currently trying to hash it out.

Because Illinois is sovereign, there is nothing CPS can do if it never makes good on the delayed payments.