Community groups band together against school closings

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With a week left before Chicago Public Schools leaders announce school closings, nine community groups came together Tuesday to try to alter the conversation from shuttering neighborhood schools to investing in them.

The organizations representing groups from the far North Side of the city to the far South Side issued what they called “A Neighborhood Agenda for Schools.” They want CPS to work more closely with organizations to make all neighborhood schools community schools, an effort supported by former CEO Arne Duncan to bring services from after school programs to GED classes onto campuses.

They also want CPS to officially embrace Grow Your Own Teachers, which encourages people from low-income communities to go into teaching, and VOYCE, an initiative that empowers teenagers to come up with solutions to problems in schools.

“If they would listen to us, they would see the results they want to see,” said Julio Contreras, a Gage Park High School student who is involved with VOYCE.

Janette Taylor-Smith, a parent leader at the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, noted that studies have found that it takes six months for students of closed schools to adjust to a new school, and that during that time their academic performance declines. 

“Why is it always our children that have to go through this?” asked Taylor-Smith, who serves on the local school council for Mollison Elementary, which was on a closings list two years ago but spared after community protest. “Why is it always black and brown children?”

Another study released on Tuesday confirms some of Taylor-Smith’s concerns. To realize any academic benefits, students from closed schools need to go to substantially higher-performing schools, according to the study by the Rand Corporation, Vanderbilt University and Mathematica Policy Research.

CPS officials have said that they won’t close a school unless there’s another higher-performing school to send them to. However, they have yet to quantify how much higher performing a school needs to be in order to receive students from a closed school.

Community organization leaders say they have met with CPS and city leaders to present their plan and, while the officials were polite, they made no promises and had no specific reactions.

In response to the neighborhood agenda’s release, CPS issued the following statement: “We are excited and encouraged that community organizations are engaging with CPS to demand quality schools in their communities and we are joined with them in working towards creating higher quality school options to help boost the academic achievement of our students.”

But the statement reiterated a sentiment Chief Portfolio Officer Oliver Sicat has been saying as he goes out to community hearings on school closings: “We may not always agree on the actions we need to take in getting there, but we all agree that the academic success of our children must always come first,” according to the statement.

Not a new debate

The press conference on Tuesday, in which about 40 people jammed into the lobby of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association’s headquarters, was another attempt by long-time community organizations to interject their opinions into the debate on school closings. Some of them have also been involved in Community Action Councils—developed by former CPS officials to come up with plans for their neighborhoods.

At the time the councils were formed last year, some school leaders hoped they would identify schools to close, taking the burden off of them. Instead, most of the councils came up with plans to attract more neighborhood students to their underutilized schools. For example, Humboldt Park’s plan was “the community as a campus,” with local schools adopting a specialty so that families would consider them rather than magnet or charter schools outside the neighborhood.

Jitu Brown, an education organizer with the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, said his group came up with the idea of taking five underutilized schools, including Dyett High School, and aligning their curriculum around the idea of global leadership.

But Brown had little hope that CPS leadership is open to the idea. The Bronzeville/Grand Boulevard neighborhood has more schools that meet the criteria for closing than any other neighborhood. He said the new CPS administration has done a good job of connecting with community organizations, but has not opened up a dialogue.

And they appear to be embracing the same strategy of former administrations, Brown said: Closing schools, firing entire staffs of schools and opening charters in their wake.