Real reasons behind the school closings... Closing schools, cutting resources... Programs of every sort facing destruction as CPS again changes the rationale for the massive closings

[Editor's Note: As usual, Curtis Black does a phenomenal job tying together a series of complex issues to present a clear and compelling argument: We are reprinting his "Newstips" article published on May 13, 2013 here with appreciation].

May 13, 2013. Closing schools, cutting resources by Curtis Black at Newstips

The rhetoric around school closings is now about focusing resources.

That communication strategy is dictated by the fact that school closings turn out not to be about deficits or utilization — since they won’t save money for several years, if ever, and since the “utilization crisis,” caused by adding 50,000 charter seats during a decade when CPS lost 30,000 students, is being addressed by adding more charters.

CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett now says closing schools will allow CPS to provide libraries, air conditioning, iPads and “learning gardens” at a small group of receiving schools.

It’s odd, then, that Byrd-Bennet recommends closing a school like Manierre, where Target provided a $200,000 grant to upgrade their library just two years ago. The funding covered 2,000 new books, a computer lab with iPads, and a family reading corner.

Independent hearing officer Paddy McNamara has recommended against closing Manierre, but CPS general counsel James Bebley filed a response arguing that in doing so, she “exceeded the scope of her authority” by considering information beond what CPS submitted.


In her report, McNamara called “baffling” the failure of CPS to note Manierre’s participation in “five distinct multimillion-dollar initiatives that are in mid-implementation” — all started within the past two years.

Manierre Elementary’s new library – slated for closing... These include the Target library makeover and Children’s Literacy Initiative. Manierre’s Ferguson Center is also part of a federally-funded revitalization of parent-child centers — a renewed priority in Chicago — with funding going to expand to full-day preschool and develop curriculum alignment from preschool through 3rd grade — an emerging priority in the field of early education.

That’s one of two intensive professional development programs under way at the school. Manierre is also one of eight schools where teachers are working with the Erikson Institute’s ground-breaking early childhood math instruction project. Closing Manierre would end all these programs, which would mean big investments of money, time and effort down the drain.

With all the talk about “resources,” it’s worth looking at the resources that will be eliminated if the school board votes to close 53 schools. In a school district that where a third of neighborhood elementary schools have to choose between a part-time art or music teacher — and where nearly a tenth of neighborhood schools have neither — many of the schools CPS is proposing to close have arts programming by outside groups that will be lost.

Arts programs threatened

Lafayette ‘s impressive string music orchestra, run by Merit Music and integrating students from the school’s special education programs, has received widespread attention. Its future at this point is unknown, but it doesn’t look good.

As the Sun Times points out, the program takes six rooms at Lafayette for practice and storage (with 85 kids, practicing 4 days a week, it’s one of the largest such programs in the city). CPS wants to jam 720 students into Chopin, the designated receiving school, leaving it full to the brim — in a school with only 33 rooms.

Songhai Elementary’s band program

Other programs are at risk of being shut down. Muziknet‘s Music Scholars Program, which offers free guitar and keyboard instruction at Louis Armstrong Elementary and recently added band instruments, could be shut down if Armstrong is closed. At Sonhai Elementary, also on the closing list, a Salvation Army program provides band instruments and instruction, and sends kids to summer music camp in Wisconsin.

Closing Delano Elementary would erase a range of arts programming, including dance and drama clubs. Family Focus provides arts activities along with family support services. Delano’s spoken word team was one of the youngest groups to compete in this year’s Louder Than A Bomb festival. They won a top award for performing their poem addressing the CPS plan to close the school.

(Delano is one of the schools where the hearing officer recommended against closing, pointing out that unlike Delano, receiving school Melody is on probation, and that Delano has higher ISAT scores. CPS argues that under its arcane performance policy point system, Melody came out ahead; the hearing officer favored a common-sense definition of “higher performing.”)

Save the Music

At King Elementary, CPS would shut down a piano and music lab built with a $30,000 grant from VH-1′s Save The Music Foundation, as well as the school’s drama program.

Closing May Elementary will eliminate an amazing array of arts partnerships: Old Town School provides instruction in African drumming and guitar, Chicago Jazz Philharmonic assists with jazz band and drumline, Joffre Ballet works with the dance club, and there’s much more.

By closing Garvey, CPS would eliminate a video production program supported by Panasonic (check out Garvey Kidvids) that complements the school’s emphasis on technology. Over the years the Garvey students have won 18 first-place awards in national video competitions.

When it comes to technology, downtown administrators don’t always have a handle on what’s going on in the schools, it seems. Among the reasons given by CPS for closing Ericson and Henson are that each building “lacks a computer lab” — according to CPS, Ericson has no science lab either.

But according to Raise Your Hand, Ericson has two science labs and three computer labs. “It’s a beautiful building,” said Wendy Katten, wondering what group CPS wants to give it to. And according to the Lawndale Alliance, Henson has a computer lab in addition to computers in the library and a computer in every classroom — indeed, it’s much better equipped than the receiving school CPS has designated.

Closing clinics

Also at Henson, a school-community health clinic run by Erie Family Health Center will be closed. CPS seems to have dropped language promising to look for a new location for the clinic from its public notice on the closing.

That’s too bad, since CPS only has 200 nurses for 680 schools.

CPS is promising to keep open the health clinic at Ryerson Elementary, which takes up two of Ryerson’s 31 classrooms. (As the General Assembly’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force has repeatedly argued, CPS doesn’t follow the new school facilities law, which requires it to account for “use of school buildings by governmental agencies and community organizations” in its utilization standard.)

That’s going to make things tight, since the combined student body when Ward takes over the building could be 780, in a building with an official capacity of 690. Ryerson has three special ed classes capped at 15 students, and Ward has a high special ed population. And now they’re getting a new engineering lab to go with their new STEM program.

Let’s hope they don’t have to close the fitness center donated to Ryerson by the Chicago Bulls two years ago. But in any case, they are going to have some very large classes.

Social services ousted

Meanwhile, in a city wracked with violence — in a district which has 320 social workers for 680 schools, and where school counselors’ caseloads are five times as high as professional standards recommend, according to CTU — CPS closings threaten social services which help kids survive and thrive in dangerous neighborhoods.

At May Elementary, the YMCA provides after-school, weekend, and summer programs, making use of six classrooms in the building. They also offer family support services and job readiness and career development classes for parents. According to the Y, they’ve heard nothing from CPS about continuing or relocating the program if May closes.

Westside Health Authority and Fathers Who Care also provide programs that will be threatened by May’s closing.

At Pope Elementary in North Lawndale, also on the closing list, America Scores provides an after-school program combining soccer and reading, and the Juvenile Protection Association provides a counseling program.

At Yale Elementary, closing the school will shut out Children’s Home and Aid, which provides academic support, sports and arts programming, mental health services and parent involvement.

At West Pullman Elementary, which CPS wants to close, a comprehensive Boys and Girls Club program opened in January with a five-year state grant, offering after-school arts and recreation activities along with homework help and health, life skills and character development programs.

These are just a few examples. Across the city, in neighborhood schools that aren’t provided enough art teachers, nurses, or social workers, principals have worked with nonprofits to fill gaps. It appears that in their rush to close schools on a very accelerated timeline, CPS has dropped the ball on sustaining these relationships.


In the rush to close schools, CPS is even seeking to close two schools that have elevators and air conditioning — in order to send their special-needs students to schools without elevators, where air conditioning will have to be installed.

At Morgan, according to Every School Is My School, 20 percent of the students have special needs, and 70 percent of those kids use wheelchairs or crutches.

Here’s what the CPS draft transition play for their transition to Ryder elementary says about that: “CPS will work with Ryder to ensure that classrooms are set up to meet students needs.”

It also says this: “Ryder is not accessible to persons with disabilities according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. For more information, contact the CPS Director of ADA Policy at 773-553-2158.” And that’s all it says about that.

Hearing officer David H. Coar notes that Rod Estvan of Access Living testified that he’d been assured that the first floor (though not the second) of Ryder would be made accessible; Coar also notes that there’s nothing in the capital investment budget submitted by CPS that reflects that commitment.

Mahalia Jackson not only has an elevator and is ADA compliant, it has expensive equipment and accommodations to serve a cluster program for hearing-impaired students. They’re being sent to Miles Davis, which will require major investments to install appropriate accommodations.

Coar was the hearing officer for both schools, and he recommended against closing either of them, citing insufficiencies in the draft transition plans regarding safety and security as well as lack of assurances that receiving schools can accommodate student with special needs.

Rubber stamp, please

General counsel Bebley charges Coar with, again, having “exceeded the scope of his authority,” saying his job is to “summarize the hearings” and decide whether CPS complied with the law by submitting the proper notice and documents.

Coar did more than summarize the hearings, he listened to the concerns of parents and teachers and took them seriously.

He listens when people say the district’s utilization standard isn’t fair to schools with larger special needs populations. And it doesn’t seem to be: the CPS formula assigns Morgan eight ancillary rooms, to cover special ed, art or music, science and computer labs, and parent and teacher resource rooms.

But Morgan uses six rooms for special ed. It’s got two rooms — with enrollment limited by law — for mild cognitive disability, two for autism, and two inclusion resource rooms. Doesn’t leave much for art and science.

Jackson has 8.5 “ancillary rooms” according to the CPS formula, and uses nine for cluster programs for kids with autism (class size limit: 6 to 8) and hearing impairment (limit 13).

Coar says both schools meet the official criteria for underutilization under CPS standards, but adds, “My reading of the utilization standards leave me concerned the the formula used is not appropriate for a school in which 20 percent of the students have special needs.”

He also listens on safety concerns — when Jackson parents express dismay at CPS sending their children across unfenced railroad tracks, where they’ll be tempted to take “short cuts”; when they talk about receiving school Fort Dearborn being located in rival gang territory, where gang violence has included a fatal beating with a baseball bat.

Walk the walk

He listens when a Morgan mother talks about taking the walk her second-grade daughter will be forced to take to Ryder — across gang lines — and being assailed by taunts and threats of harm to Morgan children if they come to Ryder. (That was one of the walks Mayor Emanuel was invited to join; he was otherwise occupied.)

All closing schools’ draft transition plans include identical language on safety and security, which Coar judges to be “deficient in failing to provide the information necessary to allow parents, students, and the [Board of Education] to evaluate safety issues specific to [each school].”

He also urges CPS to pay attention to the discretionary factors to be considered, including safety and security, culture and climate, school leadership, facility conditions, specal programming and community feedback. (In other responses, Bebley hangs his lawyer’s hat on the language in CPS guidelines that such factors “may” be considered, arguing that they such consideration isn’t actually required, and hearing officers shouldn’t address those factors.)

Coar notes that much of the testimony by parents and teachers addresses these “discretionary” issues, while none of CPS’s submissions do with any specificity, and CPS officials testifying never mentioned them. Coar strongly urges the board to take them into account.

He’s most impressed by the inclusive culture at Jackson, where the new principal is hearing-impaired and many non-disabled students and teachers know sign language. The “signature moment” for him was when a deaf student testified and the entire room responded by signing applause.

“Nothing emerged at the hearing that indicated that [Byrd-Bennett] has exercised her discretion to consider school culture and climate,” Coar writes. “Had she done so, I must believe that, given the uniqueness of the culture there, the problem of underutilization at Jackson would have been addressed in a way not requiring the closing of the school.”

(One way to eliminate overcapacity might be to close and demolish one of two annexes at the receiving school, which is also rated underutilized. As it stands, Jackson parents fear their special needs kids will be segregated in one of the annexes.)

Squeezing special ed

Because CPS’s utilization standard discriminates against schools with higher proportions of children with disabilities, a disproportionate number of schools with special ed programs are on the closing list. And it’s not clear how student’s IEPs can be met without sufficient space.

Take Otis, which CPS grants nine rooms for art, science, special ed, and other “ancillary” purposes. Seven of them are used for special ed classes with legal limits up to 15 in a room, according to RYH. Now Otis is receiving 255 students from Peabody, including nearly 50 additional students with IEPs.

At Stockton, two schools with high special needs populations are being combined. Courtenay, with three self-contained special ed rooms, is taking over the building at Stockton, which has nine self-contained classrooms. CPS’s utilization formula gives the school ten rooms for special ed and other “ancillary” purposes.

That will jeopardize a new Snoezelen room, a controlled multisensory environment used in therapy for children with autism, which was installed after Stockton speech therapist Marilyn Sandler raised $65,000 in grants on her own initiative, according to Every School.

Class size

Another program at risk is the use of Title 1 funds for high-poverty schools to reduce class sizes; principals can decided to use the money to fund additional positions. That won’t be possible at a number of high-poverty, low-performing schools once CPS closings go through, according to RYH.

The group lists thirteen school closing proposals in which the receiving school is on academic probation and asks how adding hundreds of students — in most cases pushing the student body over the receiving school’s official ideal capacity — will help those schools.

Overcrowding resulting from school closings is also likely to undermine better-performing receiving schools, according to RYH. Schools like Chopin, a top-performing school which the Sun-Times warns “may be yet another casualty” of the rush to close schools.

“Packing Chopin with as many as 400 extra students from neighborhing Lafayette jeopardizes much of what has made it thrive: small class sizes, an intimate environment, room to spread out.” Consolidation means “Chopin will likely have to discontinue some of what it offers now, boost class sizes, or both.”

Or Nicholson, which has moved from Level 3 to Level 1 over the past four years, with the school’s small class sizes credited for playing a major role. Or Leland, a small school with small classes that will now absorb two other schools and expand frm K-3 to K-8.

Under CPS’s plan, a small number of schools will get libraries, air conditioning and learning gardens, a handful will get STEM and IB programs, and some with half-time art teachers may get a full-time position. But many crucial resources flowing from the initiative of neighborhood school communities will be jettisoned, and many students who could use more individual attention will end up with less access to it.


Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

5 + 3 =