School closing criteria outlined
by JASON PORTERFIELD
A Chicago Public Schools commission that was formed to help determine which of the city’s schools should be closed has released its preliminary findings.
The Commission on School Utilization report lists six recommendations based on 10 public meetings and comments by teachers, administrators, staff members, students, residents, education experts and researchers. The nine-member commission was formed last fall to gather data and make recommendations regarding efforts to “right size” the district.
Enrollment data from 2012 show that 50 percent of all city schools are operating below capacity, and nearly 140 are half-empty, according to the Chicago Public Schools. The school system has classroom space for more than 500,000 students, but just over 400,000 students are enrolled.
There are 681 public schools in the district, including 472 elementary schools, 106 high schools, 96 charter school campuses and seven contract schools.
The report points to a decline in the city’s population of school-aged children since the 2000 census, the opening of 80 new schools during that time, and an increased emphasis on offering charter schools as options for students as reasons for the underutilization of many buildings.
The report found that maintaining the district’s school buildings, nearly half of which were built before 1930, has become expensive. The district spends $313 million annually to maintain its buildings, and its current capital needs come to $6.5 billion, according to the report.
Half of the district’s capital needs involve deferred maintenance, such as boiler upgrades and masonry repairs. The other half is for improvements such as dehumidification, ensuring access for students with disabilities and adding playgrounds and art, science and computer classrooms to schools that lack them. By 2014 the school system’s budget deficit will be nearly $1 billion.
The report also listed academic costs for keeping underutilized schools open, stating that students in underutilized schools are more likely to be placed in split-grade classrooms and that spreading limited resources among underutilized schools makes it harder for all students to have access to art and music programs, libraries and playgrounds.
One of the commission’s findings is that many underutilized schools have some of the district’s most crowded classrooms. In overcrowded schools, 25 percent or more of classrooms have four or more students over ideal capacity, while in underutilized schools, 42 percent of classrooms are four or more students over capacity. According to the commission, that happens because the staffs at the schools are too small to meet the needs of the students and classes have to be combined.
“Given both the problems with underutilized schools and the challenges of school closures, we believe closures can be appropriate if they are done with a minimum of disruption to students and communities; if the safety of students who are affected can be ensured; if those students who are impacted move to better schools, with better facilities and better resources; and if the district ensures that it is open and transparent about the information and processes used for school closings” the report states.
However, the nonbinding recommendations made by the committee would significantly shorten the list of schools that could be closed.
The report states that the commission heard about the problems associated both with closing schools and with keeping underutilized schools open. It also warns the school system not to fix “what isn’t broken” and states that the district should avoid closing schools that, “though technically underutilized, are vibrant hubs of community activity housed in high-quality buildings, and that serve as an anchoring force in their neighborhoods.”
The commission recommends that high schools not be considered for closing and that high-performing schools not be closed. Among schools found to be underutilized, the commission recommends that the school system keep schools open that are in the process of adding grades, that have more than 600 students, that are close to “efficient utilization” or that have recently experienced a “significant school action.”
The recommendation to keep all high schools open is based on concerns for the safety of students, with the report stating that it is risky to ask teens to cross shifting gang boundaries to attend school. The report states that threats to student safety caused by mixing students from different neighborhoods are greatest for high school students, that doing so would increase the risk of a violent incident, and that high school students in particular need stability in their lives and moving to another school would create discontinuity in their education.
The commission argued that the district needs to “preserve and nurture” high-performing “Level 1” schools.
“If there is going to be a school action, the students displaced from that school need to be moved to a higher-performing school,” the report states. “Given that, we believe that closing top performers would be a mistake, regardless of utilization.”
The report recommends that if a top-performing school is in poor condition and if an underutilized but well maintained school is located nearby and is slated for consolidation, the district should carry out a “reverse consolidation.” This would mean that the top-performing school, its staff and leadership would move into the well maintained building and become the “welcoming” school by recreating its school culture in the space.
The report recommends that underutilized schools that are in the process of adding grades should be kept open because they could be in the process of becoming well utilized schools. The commission’s recommendation that underutilized schools with more than 600 students be kept open is based on the logistical difficulties of moving so many students to another building. The commission recommends that the district invest more resources into the larger, underutilized schools in order to make them more attractive to students and parents.
The commission recommends that schools close to becoming efficiently utilized should remain open, suggesting that a school at 70 percent capacity could quickly reach the 85 percent capacity benchmark that defines efficient utilization status through a small change in neighborhood demographics and dynamics.
Schools that have recently experienced a significant school action should remain open so that students are not exposed to another disruption in their education, the report states.
The commission also made three recommendations outside of its charge to look solely at school utilization, advising that schools be kept open if they are “on the rise” and that the school system find creative solutions for dealing with the 61 elementary schools deemed to be overcrowded and hold charter schools to the same standards to which it holds district-run schools.
In its recommendation that schools that are on the rise remain open, the commission states, “It doesn’t make sense to interrupt the upward trajectory of a school that is moving its students toward greater achievement.”
The commission recommends that in the case of the overcrowded elementary schools, the school system should consider solutions such as building new schools in neighborhoods where there is no extra classroom capacity. In neighborhoods that have a “healthy mix” of underutilized and overcrowded schools, the school system should consider altering attendance boundaries or other solutions to relieve the overcrowding, according to the report.
“We face a very real and very daunting financial crisis that threatens everything in our district, which is why the work of the commission and its feedback from the community is so critical,” Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett said. “This work is far from over, and we must continue to engage the community and give them the respect they deserve during this process over the next several weeks.”
Once Byrd-Bennett has completed her review of the commission’s recommendations, the school system will release a list of schools that could be closed or consolidated.
A second round of public meetings is set to begin on Monday, Jan. 28, and will run through the end of February. At least 28 meetings will be held, with two meetings slated for each school network.
Communities will have the opportunity to give specific feedback about individual schools. Each meeting will be moderated by an independent facilitator and will include time for public comment.
A schedule of meeting times and locations will be released once Byrd-Bennett completes her review of the commission’s recommendations.