Facilities plan lacked parent, community involvement

October 9, 2013

Joy Clendenning
Joy Clendenning

As a Chicago Public Schools parent, I have been frustrated about the lack of a comprehensive plan for our children’s education. Imagine my delight when I learned about a state law that requires CPS to produce a 10- Year Educational Facilities Master Plan. Our state legislators, in response to years of school actions and facilities decisions that did not seem coordinated, equitable, or transparent, established the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force to look into these issues and make recommendations. P.A.97-0474 became law in 2011 and required CPS to produce the 10-year plan and involve stakeholders, such as parents, in its development.

As I learned more about the law and how CPS intended to develop the plan, I began to ask about it at local school council meetings (by this time I was on the LSC at Ray and was also attending LSC meetings at Kenwood Academy) and also asked about the involvement of individual schools.

No one knew what I was talking about, though by this time it was only several months before the district’s draft plan was due.

At one meeting when the network chief was present, I asked him what he knew about how LSCs would be involved in creating a plan for our school, as well as in developing the community plan for our area. He did not know. At some point, the principal and LSC chair had to sign off on a survey-- but the actual survey questions were never shared with the LSC.

Various principals told me, apologetically, that they receive many surveys and that it is often not clear what purpose the survey is supposed to serve. But they know that central office requires the surveys be completed, and if an LSC chair’s signature is needed, then they simply ask the LSC chair to stop by and sign.

The vast majority of LSC chairs, LSC members and principals with whom I spoke knew nothing about the 2011 law or the 10-year plan. Instead of being intimately involved with the development of what could be a powerful, comprehensive, transformative plan for our schools, principals and communities—including parents—were left uninformed and thus kept out of full participation in the process.

Closings, not collaboration

Last fall, CPS should have been hard at work, doing the intensive, collaborative work needed to draft a plan for such a large complex school district. Instead, the appointed School Board and the new CEO, and many other staff, were hard at work trying to justify mass school closings without a long-term vision.

Our state legislators could have stopped this flawed process by requiring CPS to defer any school actions for one year and forcing the district to come up with a comprehensive plan that included real input by stakeholders before moving forward with any more actions. Instead of taking such a logical step, a majority of our legislators were convinced by CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to extend the deadline so that the final plan was due Oct. 1, 2013.

Over this past year, I have watched as CPS embarked upon a massive number of school closings on the shortest time-frame anyone has ever experienced. Not surprisingly, there was not much energy or time to develop a real facilities plan. The intent of the law was to use legislative coercion to force CPS to do something it had thus far chosen not to do: create a useful plan and a blueprint for the school district’s future. 

From a parent's point of view, it appears that CPS has fulfilled the letter of the law while neglecting the spirit of it.

What a huge missed opportunity. 

Lip-service and no listening

A few weeks after the draft plan was released in May, the School Board voted to close 49 schools. Over the summer, CPS started to make an effort to interact with some members of the community about the draft by holding meetings with Community Action Councils that exist in eight areas of the city. It was not until August and September that CPS held meetings for LSC members and communities. Those meetings were not well-publicized and generally had poor attendance.

The timing was so strange. Many of us are active, involved parents during the school year, serving on LSC's, PTA's, Parent Action Committees, etc. But CPS did not begin to get public input until the summer, when most parents are not as involved.

CPS paid lip-service to the concept of community involvement, but did not really listen to the public. In my neighborhood, CPS came out to present the plan and get feedback. About 40 individuals turned up, with many different opinions expressed but no process for getting any kind of consensus about what the community wants for its schools.

At this meeting, one participant asked for facade improvements, a suggestion that made it into the revised plan. Yet many comments from the same meeting dealt with class size, a main priority for parents. Those comments somehow did not make the cut. Also, parents have said again and again that what they most want are good neighborhood schools within walking distance, and yet this long-term goal did not make it into the plan either.

Instead of this haphazard effort, CPS could have worked with and supported individual schools and communities while they embarked on several months of intense study and created robust 10-year plans that reflected their needs. Again, a missed opportunity.

The final plan is yet another example of something not done well, not done by educators, and supported by an appointed School Board that is doing the mayor’s bidding.

We need CPS to follow the intent of the law, not just its most basic requirements. We need CPS to tap into the wealth of experience in community organizations, faith communities, LSCs and parent groups, plus teachers, staff and administrators, to do the intensive work necessary for communities to really plan for their schools.

CPS says this is a living document. The law requires it to be updated every 2.5 years. Let's dig in and do the hard work required to finally have a good plan.

Joy Clendenning, a former teacher, is a Chicago Public Schools parent who advocates for strong public schools in her neighborhood, Hyde Park, and city-wide. She is pursuing a master's degree in education policy at the University of Illinois in Chicago.