The Challenges of Change

Even when change is absolutely necessary (i.e. the debt of Chicago Public Schools continues to grow and the current operating budget is not sustainable), education leaders must fight for every possible change. I completely agree that school closings are necessary, but they must be done strategically and we must analyze the unintended consequences of closing each school. The bottom line is that CPS cannot continue to run so many half-full (and often low-performing) schools. The below Editorial doesn’t acknowledge the other issues that must also be addressed in order to successfully and safely close schools (i.e. students crossing gang lines to get to new schools, long(er) commuting times, increased difficulty for parents to get to the schools, lack of a neighborhood/community hub, and the lack of higher-performing schools for students to attend), but it does address many of the reasons why the schools must be closed in the first place.

An editorial from today’s Chicago Tribune:

By Dec. 1, Chicago Public Schools officials must deliver to state lawmakers a list of schools slated to close at the end of this school year. The district will release its criteria for making those decisions this week.

As many as 120 Chicago schools are likely to be on the chopping block because the district faces a $1 billion budget gap next year. And the following year.

This is a critical moment for CPS and its new CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Make no mistake: This will be painful. But scores of schools must be closed.

There are more than 100,000 empty seats in schools because CPS badly mismanaged its real estate portfolio over the past decade. Overall district enrollment has declined by 34,000 students since 2003. CPS built new schools to relieve overcrowding in some communities but failed to close enough of the older, emptier ones, often caving to community pressure.

Reality check: Keeping half-used buildings open is a huge financial drain the system can’t afford.

CPS says it can save about $800,000 a year in operating costs by closing a school and reassigning kids to schools that have extra space. It also avoids the cost of capital improvements, and could generate some revenue through property sales.

Those closings alone won’t eliminate this huge budget gap. But CPS simply can’t operate more schools — heat more buildings, patch more roofs — than its students need.

One of the first major tests for Byrd-Bennett is how compellingly the district makes its case to Chicagoans — particularly parents of CPS students — that neighborhood schools must close. She needs to deliver a clear explanation of the district’s strategy. Byrd-Bennett and her boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, need to build community support for these closings. They should start making the case now by stressing two major points:

•Many of those half-empty schools not only drain resources, they rank among the district’s worst performers. CPS should first close schools that are underenrolled and poor performers. Scores of schools fit that profile.

•Displaced students can benefit academically if they transfer to a higher-quality school. That’s the conclusion of a 2009 University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research study of 18 elementary schools closed from 2001 to 2006. “Displaced students who enrolled in new schools with high average achievement had larger gains in both reading and math than students who enrolled in receiving schools with lower average achievement,” the study said.

That could be a huge selling point for CPS to parents. No, not every student will be able to move to a much better-performing school; sadly, there aren’t enough in the system. But closing half-empty underperformers and boosting investment in the remaining schools should massively increase the odds that a child will transfer to a better school.

We know this will be a painful and emotional time for parents, teachers and students. Many parents don’t want to send their kids to another school, no matter how abysmal the neighborhood school performs. There are legitimate safety issues in some neighborhoods.

The Chicago Teachers Union should help guide CPS closings, not stand in the doorway of every school, shouting “No!”

And then there are the politicians. We expect state legislators who unwisely tried to meddle in earlier closings and turnarounds to try again with this round. They may have company: Some 33 aldermen are calling for City Council hearings on the closings, demanding to know which schools are being targeted for closing and under what criteria.

That can be helpful if the goal is to inform parents, not to delay the inevitable. We understand the impulse to save neighborhood schools. But this isn’t a matter of CPS whim. This is about the creating a sustainable budget for the district and its 404,000 students.

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