Last-ditch efforts aim to stop school closings, turnarounds

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On the eve of the Board of Education vote on school closings and turnarounds, CPS leaders said they will reopen a neighborhood option in the Crane High School building, city council members questioned CPS leaders and activists and parents made final arguments that their schools have made gains and don’t need dramatic change.

Also, an advocacy organization once again raised questions about whether turnaround schools produce results.

Tuesday’s last-ditch efforts capped two months of wrangling about the proposal by CPS to close two elementary schools, phase out two high schools and turnaround 10 schools. Six of the turnarounds—a process that entails replacing an entire staff—are slated to be managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

This year, CPS leaders didn’t take any actions off the table. In the past, the district has in some cases backed off following community and parent opposition. 

The only concession made by CEO Jean-Claude Brizard was the announcement on Tuesday that Crane will house a health sciences high school. The current Crane High School will still be phased out and next year’s freshmen will be assigned to other neighborhood high schools.

But starting in the fall of 2013, area students will have the option of attending the health sciences high school. Whether Crane staff will automatically get jobs in the new high school is undecided and is an issue that will be grappled with by a committee that Brizard intends to create.

State Senator Annazette Collins said she thinks it is a “great thing” that CPS is ready to turn a proposal from the community into reality. She noted that Crane is close to the medical district and Malcolm X City College, which is going to become a medical specialty school.

“What a good place to train students for sustainable careers,” she said.

Parents and activists from other schools, however, say they have no reason to suspect Wednesday’s vote will bring a reprieve.   

Willie Williams, an activist whose wife is a security guard at Casals, said he believes that the “powers that be” don’t like to be told they are wrong. He spoke at a press conference held Tuesday in which parents and staff once again invited CPS leaders to visit their school and said that students are making gains based on standardized test results. 

“They want to tell is what they are going to do, not the other way around,” Williams said.

Parents in Humboldt Park forced attention to the situation at Casals and Piccolo elementary schools, which are slated to be handed over to the Academy for Urban School Leadership. On Friday, they, along with members of Occupy Chicago, staged a sit-in. On Saturday, they were promised meetings with board members.

After meeting with board Vice President Jesse Ruiz at the school, parents had phone conversations with three other board members and told them that the district should support their current principals, who are new and making changes. The parents want the schools to be spared a turnaround and instead allowed to remain open under a probation plan for two years. 

According to parents, board member Andrea Zopp asked them why they would oppose a turnaround.

“We are already being turned around,” Piccolo’s local school council chair Latrice Watkins responded. “Give us a chance, we don’t need AUSL. Give us some of those dollars you are giving AUSL. Why do we need more changes? We’ve already had 3 principals in five years.”

But not one board member committed to voting against the turnarounds on Wednesday, a disappointment to parents.

“It was not just about us talking, it was about them really seeing this plan and a possible reality,” says Latoya Walls, parent at Piccolo who was also on the calls. 

Piccolo and Casals parents and activists also pointed to a study released Tuesday by Designs for Change as another reason why the turnaround shouldn’t go forward.

Designs for Change analyzed ISAT scores and found that many high-poverty neighborhood elementary schools are out-performing turnaround schools. And some of those high-performing neighborhood schools are getting results in facilities sorely in need of repair, while CPS is pouring millions into turnarounds, said Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change.

“Most people have never heard about these schools,” said Moore. “The turnarounds get a lot of publicity.”

Moore also looked at teacher turnover at turnaround elementary schools and found that only 42 percent of teachers at the schools in 2008-2009 were still there in 2011-2012. He said that anecdotally, teachers have told him that turnaround schools focus too much on test prep and sap creativity. 

This first round of school actions by Brizard’s administration has been challenged on many fronts. December’s board meeting was effectively shut down by activists. The Illinois Educational Facilities Task Force, which includes several state lawmakers, said that CPS wasn’t complying with a new law aimed at making the process more transparent. Task force members demanded a meeting with Brizard and board president David Vitale, but that meeting never took place.

Though held on two Friday nights, one in the middle of a snowstorm, community hearings brought out dozens of parents and community members. Some of them supported the school actions, but admitted to being paid. Later, it was learned that a local pastor coordinated payment and that a consulting group linked to Mayor Rahm Emanuel was involved in the “rent-a-protester” controversy.

In recent weeks, a coalition of LSC members filed a lawsuit to try to stop the school actions, claiming that CPS didn’t give them specific probationary plans to improve—something that the law demands. The LSC members, whose lawsuit was paid for by the Chicago Teachers Union, are awaiting a hearing.