CPS may still close high schools; no list till February of schools facing action

January 18, 2013

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett agrees with the recommendation of her hand-picked Commission on School Utilization to include school performance among the criteria for school closing decisions, but she may still close one or two high schools and could veer from other recommendations.

The commission’s interim report released last week, said the district should not shut down any high schools because of safety concerns as students cross gang boundaries traveling to new schools.

Byrd-Bennett also said the list of schools that could be shut down won’t be announced before the first set of community hearings on the closings. Last week, she had said the list would be published before the hearings started.

 At the first round of community hearings (two to be held in each network), CPS officials will present “high-level” information about the schools in the community. The first hearing will be at 7 p.m. on Jan. 28 at Truman College. After that, they take place nearly every day through February.

By Feb. 13, the list will be complete and the second round of community hearings will take place.

“It is important to not just throw out a list,” Byrd-Bennett said Friday. Using the commission’s recommendations, she is paring down the original list of 330 underutilized schools and said staff need to take time to figure out how to incorporate some of the more vague recommendations, such as not to close mid-level schools that are “on the rise.”

In a letter to the commission, Bryd-Bennett agreed that high schools should be off the table because of potential danger to students. “We will remove high schools from consideration in our efforts to address our utilization challenges,” according to the letter.

But Friday, Byrd-Bennett said she could still take action to close dilapidated high schools that pose a health and safety risk and are too expensive to repair. Also, sometimes high schools are so small that the district cannot provide a “robust learning environment,” she added. These instances are rare, she said.

According to CPS data, 17 high schools are more than 50 percent underutilized and have hefty price tags for maintenance and repair, including seven with price tags of more than $30 million for upkeep.

Overall, most underutilized schools are in poor, African American neighborhoods. CPS released the latest school-by-school utilization rates in December. CPS officials say they must close schools so that they can spread the district's scarce resources further, but it is unclear how much savings the district will actually incur.

Other recommendations off the table

Byrd-Bennett also said she is not signing on to other recommendations against shutting down schools with more than 600 students, schools with borderline under-utilization rates and schools that have recently experienced a significant action. Byrd-Bennett said she and her staff will look at each school to see if they are likely to attract more students and to figure out what is the definition of a “significant school action.”

Having been in Chicago for only a short time, she said she is not sure how school actions have impacted students.

“I need to find out which school, which actions, to which children,” she said.

“Over the next few weeks, I will work with my team to characterize this descriptor and assess the impacts to students and their families who have previously been through a previous school action,” she writes in the letter to the commission.

Byrd-Bennett says she agrees with the commission that high-performing underutilized schools should be spared, as well as those mid-level schools that seem to be trending upward. She also will not close schools that are adding grades.

She said she and her team will have to figure out the definition of mid-performing schools that are “on the rise.”

Though it was outside the boundaries of the School Utilization Commission, they also recommended holding charter schools to the same criteria for closing as traditional CPS schools. Byrd-Bennett said she is committed to creating a unified accountability and closing process for both types of school.

Attached is a list of community hearings, their dates and locations.