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Editorial: Close many schools, but not in a panic

Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett  |  Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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Updated: February 14, 2013 6:43AM



Buried in a new report on proposed Chicago school closings is a question — the question, in fact — that must guide the Chicago Schools CEO as she contemplates major closures for this June:

Can CPS handle multiple school closures and consolidations in a single year “safely and efficiently”?

A close reading of the report, released Thursday by an independent commission appointed by the CEO, suggests that the answer is no.

Should CPS close schools? Yes. It’s right for students in severely under-used schools and for a school district in financial free-fall.

But large numbers by June? Absolutely not.

As we’ve written previously, we have grave doubts that CPS can pull off a large number of closures and consolidations this summer and also ensure student safety and student transfers to better schools — all issues that were raised by the Commission on School Utilization in their interim report released Thursday. In past closures, the vast majority of students have ended up in schools as weak as the ones they left.

The commission’s final recommendations, which will be based in large part on its determination of CPS’ capacity to safely and efficiently close schools, are due in early March. By March 31, Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett must release her closure list.

We’ve recommended before, and again here, that if CPS intends to move ahead with large numbers of closures it should spread them out until June 2014, giving it a decent chance of success. This is in no way another excuse for inaction — we’ve had enough of those over the last decade — it’s a call for sanity.

We like many of the commission’s early recommendations of which schools not to close, and believe they affirm the group’s independence and Byrd-Bennett’s decision to appoint them: No high schools (over concerns that mixing students from different schools could spark violence); no high-performing, under-enrolled schools; no schools that recently underwent a school action such as a consolidation; no schools that are only slightly under-enrolled.

Byrd-Bennett will soon decide which suggestions to follow. We urge her to accept those listed above, though only the most under-used schools should be eligible for closure — below 50 or 60 percent of capacity.

In the coming days, Byrd-Bennett will name the schools still eligible for closure and, starting Jan. 28, CPS will host neighborhood meetings to get feedback on individual schools. She’s also getting detailed feedback from principals on space usage and looking closely at individual schools.

That’s a start for picking which schools to close, but not enough given problems with the formula used to determine building utilization rates. CPS claims about half its 681 schools are under-used, with nearly 140 more than half empty. But many legitimate criticisms of CPS’ one-size-fits-all formula have been raised, including a failure to account for schools with large special-education populations, different room sizes needed for different ages and the relatively small number of rooms allowed for classes like art and music. It also only counts a school as overcrowded once average class size reaches 36, not the system maximum class size of 31.

These issues have been raised most effectively by Apples to Apples, an independent research effort connected to the advocacy group Raise Your Hand. Given the blunt instrument being used, CPS must focus only on the most under-used schools and then gather more detailed on-the-ground information to verify the severity of the under-enrollment. An outside evaluation of CPS’ formula also would help rebuild trust between the school system and parents.



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