A question of involvement

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Any adult who was successful in school will likely remember that their parents played a defining role in that success. What happens during the roughly six-hour school day is only part of the learning equation. Who else but a parent or guardian will make sure children attend school and complete their homework?

Even parents who are not highly educated can help to ensure that their children succeed by providing the right support and encouragement.

Yet, as this issue of Catalyst In Depth reports, parent engagement is shaping up to be one of the weak links for welcoming schools as they strive to forge new school communities with the thousands of students displaced by closings.

Parent after parent interviewed for this issue expressed dissatisfaction and dismay about the rocky transition to their new schools. They cited bus schedules that don’t accommodate after-school activities, crowded classrooms, students feeling anxious and unwelcome. None of these problems is impossible to solve, but they naturally loom larger because of the angst and anger families have experienced over the closings.

“This is a two-year transition,” says Peter DeWitt, an Education Week columnist and school principal who oversaw a closing and consolidation in his district in upstate New York. “People want the parents to get over it in October, but this is a painful loss for them and it will take longer.”

In CPS, problems with parent engagement are magnified because many parents were already notoriously distrustful of the district and fought against the closings. 

The loss of veteran black teachers and principals, who understood the communities that were hardest hit by the closings, is also a factor. Some of these educators transferred to welcoming schools. Others who were dedicated to the mission of educating lower-income children did not and, as we report, have decided to move on from CPS.

As this issue goes to press, the new school year is just a month old. It’s far too soon to render a verdict on the closings, and it’s inaccurate to say all parents are dissatisfied.

But for the closings to be a success, students will have to get a better education in their new schools. That hasn’t happened for the vast majority of students displaced by previous closings: They landed at schools no better than those they left. 

This time around, the stakes are higher. Thousands more students were displaced, and many parents are angrier and more likely to simply give up on CPS and bolt to the suburbs or to private schools.

Not all families have the financial means to make these choices—nor should they have to. Their tax dollars, and ours, are used to fund a school system that has a moral, and public, obligation to provide a good education for all kids, no matter their families’ level of income. 

The district often says it is accomplishing this goal by opening more charters and contract schools. But true neighborhood schools, freely available to any child in a community, are the bedrock of public education. It’s one thing to foster new approaches via carefully vetted charter schools that have a track record of academic success. It’s another thing to rely on charters because it’s easier, and cheaper, than doing the real work of creating good neighborhood schools. Many parents and grassroots activists are anti-charter because they suspect CPS of the latter instead of the former, and see their neighborhood schools dying on the vine as a result.

CPS has made a start at improving the welcoming schools, bringing in new technology and classroom materials, sprucing up buildings and launching new STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and International Baccalaureate programs. But the new programs will need money and support long-term, and the district’s finances are anything but stable. 

In 2009, the Consortium on Chicago School Research issued a report on the impact of school closings that started in 2004 under the Renaissance 2010 initiative. The results were discouraging, to say the least. The Consortium, a highly regarded institution known for issuing carefully worded reports that never go an inch beyond the evidence, stated its findings bluntly:  

“This report reveals that eight in 10 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students displaced by school closings transferred to schools ranking in the bottom half of system schools on standardized tests. However, because most displaced students transferred from one low-performing school to another, the move did not, on average, significantly affect student achievement.”

Journalists are often criticized for supposedly focusing on “bad news” and ignoring the positive. Yet in reality, we’re happy to report good news—if the evidence backs it up. 

Let’s hope that by year’s end that the evidence thus far proves wrong.