Fewer students go to welcoming schools, task force wants more info

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UPDATE: Admitting that information officials provided to a state task force had errors, the district released new numbers Friday showing that 60 percent of students displaced by closings are attending the designated welcoming school.

All summer, CPS leaders projected that about 80 percent of students would enroll in the welcoming schools, investing millions in the schools to to try to ensure that they provided a better learning environment than the closed schools.

Also, the new numbers show that the district still doesn’t know where about 5 percent of the displaced students are enrolled. Some 11,729 students were displaced, including preschoolers and special education students.

Chief Transformation Officer Todd Babbitz shared information about the destination of the displaced students earlier this week to the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force. The information was from the 10th day of school.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said that staff from the Office of Family and Community Engagement have tried to call and visit the homes of all students who did not enroll in a CPS school.

“Some have reenrolled and some are no longer attending CPS schools. Some we have not been able to connect with at all,” she said. “But we have attempted to reach out to all and engage their parents and guardians around ensuring those children are enrolled in school.”

However, Carroll said it is okay that many families chose not to enroll in the designated “welcoming” school. District leaders want to empower parents to choose which school their children attend, she said.

“Thousands of parents every year choose to enroll their child at a different school in our district – or even outside the district and we support them in those choices,” she said.

About 450 students are in charter schools and nearly 3,000 are in other district-run schools.

CPS officials at the meeting said these numbers show that CPS retained high percentages of students whose schools shut down, and that worries about “losing swathes of students after school closings” were unfounded.

However, task force members were not so sure that CPS should be boasting about the figures. Valencia Rias-Winstead said she would like to know where students ended up if they didn’t enroll in their designated welcoming school.

In previous closings, few displaced students wound up in selective enrollment, magnet or high- performing neighborhood schools. Rias-Winstead said she suspects the same outcome this year, especially since the announcement about which schools were to be closed didn’t come until late March and was not approved until May—long after the deadlines to apply for these schools.

“CPS basically ruined parents’ options,” she said.  “It’s like ‘My child’s school is closing, it’s not my fault. I should have the option to enroll my child even if it’s after the deadline.’ ”

State Rep. Esther Golar said she was not happy with the quality of the welcoming schools, noting that in several instances, both the closing and welcoming school were on probation.

“It’s a concern to parents and a concern to me, the [achievement] level these kids are at,” she said. “They may have iPads, but if they can’t read, to me that’s a moot point.”

At subsequent meetings, task force members want to know more information about what happened to special education students and how students who were behind academically have fared in their new environments.

“It’s about CPS developing a system of tracking and accessing where these students end up,” said Jackie Leavy, who works as a pro bono advisor to the task force. “We’re not just asking for data points. There is a larger contextual history that these school actions encompass. We want to know what’s going on with these students.”

Next year’s closings?

Task force members were also troubled by the lack of clarity surrounding future school closings. As required by law, last week CPS issued draft guidelines for future school actions. Although CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had promised a five-year moratorium on closings, the guidelines stated that schools could be closed in the coming year if the building’s “physical condition” presented a “safety hazard.”

The guidelines also state that one consideration will be whether the repair costs make the “continued operation of the site cost-prohibitive or continued occupancy of the site unsafe or impractical.”

“This uses very broad terms,” said Cecile Carroll, a task force member and the executive director of the advocacy organization Blocks Together. “What is the definition of impractical? What is cost prohibitive? We need to have a discussion about these terms and what they’re implying.”

Because some of the schools are still awaiting updated building assessments, staff and parents could find out that their school is a safety hazard very close to the time that officials must announce school closings, if they are planning any this year.

Clarice Berry, another task force member and the head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said the safety hazard provision is unfair because it is caused by deferred maintenance, which is the district’s fault.  “It is a loophole,” said Berry, who did not attend the task force meeting, but spoke about the guidelines afterwards.

The task force had hoped that the 10-year Master Facilities Plan, which was approved by the School Board at its September meeting, would spell out schools’ conditions and rank their needs.

But the plan doesn’t rank schools or judge facility quality, and it’s a major reason that task force members–who worked for years to pass the state law that compels CPS to create a master facilities plan–are unhappy with it.

“Schools still don’t know where they are,” said Carroll. “Five hundred and fifty public schools don’t know where they are or when they’ll get improvements.”

Also, the plan doesn’t rank schools based on overcrowding and their place in line for an addition—a problem for Berry because Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently announced schools slated for additions, including some that don’t seem to have the most need.

“They are playing dice with the schools,” said Berry. She called the document an “outline at best.”

Charters vs. neighborhood schools

For the task force, another big frustration is the failure of the master plan to address, and engage the public in a debate about, the central question facing the school district: What is the right mix of charter and neighborhood schools?

“This should include an open and frank public discussion of the balance between neighborhood public schools and charter and non-attendance boundary schools in the overall make-up of the district (“school assignment and choice policies”),” states a letter from the task force to CEO Byrd-Bennett.

In a summary of the task force’s concerns, the letter points out that when CPS announced the list of potential school closings, 30,000 parents came out to defend their neighborhood school.

“These families’ “choice” –to keep their neighborhood public schools open through concerted efforts and commitments by all parties to improve them– was largely ignored as CPS carried out mass school closures in School Year 2013-14,” according to the summary. “When children must travel across the city to attend a better school because they don’t have a high-performing neighborhood school in safe walking distance, thousands of families have expressed that CPS is offering them a false ‘choice.’ ”

Without debate and inclusion of any decisions in the master plan, it is impossible to know how leaders want the district to look in 10 years.

Babbitz told the task force that the master plan was a “living document” and can be updated. However, CPS doesn’t technically have to revisit it for two-and-a-half years.

Jenna Frazier contributed to this report.