CPS facilities task force questions closings, turnarounds

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A state task force created to monitor decisions on school facilities in CPS passed a resolution Thursday asking Board of Education President David Vitale and CEO Jean-Claude Brizard to an open meeting to explain how they chose the 20 schools proposed for turnaround, closure or other action. Members of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force said they were particularly alarmed that CPS did not publish clear guidelines on how they decided on the proposed turnarounds and did not heed community input into school closing guidelines.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said  “our guidelines are perhaps the most clear and transparent that CPS has presented to date.”

She also said that the “more than 40 community meetings and two public hearings” influenced the process and some schools were subjected to school actions because of it.

HB 363, a new law driven by the task force, requires CPS to publish preliminary guidelines and hold hearings on them before issuing final ones. Those guidelines were used to make decisions on school closings and other actions and, by law, they had to be announced by Dec. 1.

At one point at Thursday’s meeting, members grilled Laura Farr, manager of state legislative affairs at CPS, on whether any part of the guidelines were changed between the time the draft version was announced in late October and the time they were finalized on November 29. At least 60 people showed up to each of the two November hearings on the guidelines.

“My understanding is that they were not,” Farr said. She said that leaders have “internally” talked about incorporating some of the feedback from community members in future guidelines. But for the current set, the time frame was too quick, she said.    

Vague guidelines?

One of the concerns voiced by community members and task force members is that the guidelines were too vague. Some 140 schools met the criteria of the draft guidelines. Given that number, it is still impossible for community members to know why one school was chosen over the others, said task force members.

The law needs to be revised to require more specificity, said Don Moore, a member of the task force who is the executive director of Designs for Change, an advocacy organization.

“If it is not more detailed, then the process becomes meaningless,” Moore said.

Especially unclear is how schools were chosen for turnaround. Task force members said that CPS officials didn’t want to have to follow the same procedure and timeline for turnarounds as that for closures, and were able to get turnarounds excluded from some parts of the new law. 

However, the law calls for decisions to “be implemented according to clear system-wide criteria and with the significant involvement of local school councils, parents, educators, and the community in decision-making,” noted Rene Heybach, a member and director of the law project for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Though all but one of the proposed turnarounds met the criteria for closure, community reaction to some of the turnarounds has been one of puzzlement. In particular, the reaction has been intense regarding Casals, which posted a composite score of 61.4 percent on state tests. More than 120 schools had lower composite ISAT scores.  

Casals was rated at Performance Level 3, the lowest level, and met criteria to be closed but, as some pointed out, the performance level scale can be confusing since it is based on test scores, value-added scores and attendance.

Carmen Palmer, who is the founding president of the Educational Village Keepers, asked task force members if CPS considered other things besides the performance levels. At Chicago Vocational and Career Academy, which is slated to be turned around, there’s a new principal who has made positive changes, she said.

Bill Gerstein, who works in CPS’ community engagement department, told her that he believes the Chicago Vocational principal will stay on board. Gerstein, who is a member of the task force, didn’t vote on the resolution inviting Brizard to a meeting.

But then Palmer asked, why change the faculty? “They are encouraged and he is making inroads.”

Safety concerns

Other members of the taskforce were concerned about the safety problems that could be created by the school closings. State Rep. Cynthia Soto, who chairs the task force, asked everyone in attendance if they were concerned about the safety of students in schools targeted for closure or phase out. Most everyone answered yes or raised their hand.  

The law calls for transitions plans that clearly lay out how the safety of students will be secured when they have to travel to new schools.

Moore said that thus far, CPS officials have only said that they “consulted” the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Transit Authority, as well as other agencies. 

“They have basically blown it off,” Moore said.

Of particular concern, task force members said, are the plans to send freshmen who would have been assigned to Crane to Wells High School instead, and to send incoming Dyett freshmen to Phillips. In the past, when high schools were phased out and students sent elsewhere, violence has been a problem.

In fact, one community member told the task force members that Dyett struggled ever since it got an influx of students from Englewood High School, which was closed in 2004.

Carroll said school officials have spent a lot of time working with the Office of School Safety and police to make sure that Dyett and Crane students are safe.