Sunday, December 04, 2011

Plan to Close or Restructure 21 Chicago Schools Draws Quick Reaction

Published: December 3, 2011

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education team made its first attempt at improving struggling schools last week, and the negative reviews came quickly. State legislators and community leaders called the proposed closing or restructuring of 21 schools “very troubling” and said administrators were violating the intent of a new state law.

Chicago Public Schools designated 10 schools for turnaround — a controversial process in which existing staff members are fired and changes are made in the school’s curriculum and learning climate. Four elementary schools will be closed, two high schools will be phased out, and six schools, one of which will also begin phasing out, will share buildings.

About 7,800 students will be affected by the proposed changes, and more than 600 teachers and other employees could lose their jobs. All the designated schools are on the city’s South and West Sides.

Legislation signed in August by Gov. Pat Quinn requires the district to follow a strict timeline for school closings and requires public comment at nearly every step of the process. The district is allowed to set the guidelines for determining which schools are subject to turnaround or closing. District officials are relying on academic achievement as the key factor in those decisions.

But academic performance at the designated schools varies widely. For example, the school district is proposing a turnaround at Pablo Casals Elementary School, where 62 percent of the students met or exceeded state standards in math and reading. At the same time, they also plan to turn around Fuller Elementary School, which had just 37 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards.

Oliver Sicat, the district’s chief portfolio officer, said administrators were careful to take action only at schools where students had a better option nearby.

“Our recommendations are to close schools where we feel like we can put our students in a better seat now,” Mr. Sicat said.

Members of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, a state entity that monitors Chicago Public Schools’ compliance with the new law, said the proposed guidelines were too vague and the process was not transparent enough to satisfy the law’s requirements.

Representative Cynthia Soto, Democrat of Chicago, one of the bill’s sponsors, said, “We need explanations, specific explanations” for the decisions to close or restructure the schools.

Becky Carroll, the school district’s chief communications officer, said the district had “followed every single requirement” of the new law.

Ms. Carroll said school officials had held more than 40 meetings with community groups and elected officials, in addition to two public meetings required by the law. She estimated that 60 more meetings would be held by February, when the Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the proposed actions.

But members of the task force said the public comments fell on deaf ears; no formal revisions were made to the draft criteria before district leaders finalized them at the end of November.

In a written statement, Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, called the proposed changes “the same old, ineffective policies couched in new and exciting public relations boosting language.”

Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the district’s guidelines “enable them to close whatever they want.” Ms. Filardo helped draft the law governing the school board’s decision-making process.

Under the guidelines, more than 140 schools were eligible to be closed, and district leaders said there could have been many more on the list.

“We could not do the entire city in one year,” said Jean-Claude Brizard, the Chicago Public Schools chief executive.

Andrea Lee, a member of the educational facilities task force and an education organizer for the Grand Boulevard Federation, said the Bronzeville community on the South Side had been disproportionately affected by school closings and turnarounds. She said 24 schools had closed in the past several years, and this year six area schools are affected.

Ms. Lee said the passage of the new law had initially made her cautiously optimistic, but she was “not that optimistic anymore.”

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