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Leave all city high schools open, CPS school-closing panel says

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 12, 2013 2:38PM

Don’t close any high schools.

Don’t close the best schools either, no matter how empty or full they may be.

And spare the schools already bothered with major changes, too.

Those are recommendations made Thursday by a panel hand-picked by the Chicago Public Schools chief to help her decide which schools to close or consolidate or spare from major upheaval this year, the first time anyone outside of CPS has been so consulted.

But the points made by the Commission on School Utilization after numerous public hearings are non-binding. Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett may accept the ideas her commission presented in its interim report, or ignore them.

The most startling recommendation concerns the exclusion of high schools, which the commission believed should not be touched for safety reasons. Gang boundaries shift too quickly for the district to work around them, the panel said. Families testifying at the commission’s public hearings had expressed deep concerns about children’s safety.

“Children should not have to travel through dangerous territory simply to get to and from school,” the report reads. “Threats to student safety by intermixing students from different neighborhoods are greatest for high school students.”

Byrd-Bennett has insisted that CPS would not look this year at a school’s performance but only at how efficiently it used its space, yet her commission wants all Level 1 — the highest performing — schools untouched, and has also asked for Level 2 schools to be spared if they’re “on the rise.”

Commission Chairman Frank Clark, a retired ComEd CEO and mayoral appointee to the McCormick Place Board, would not elaborate on whether the panel meant a rise in performance, attendance or demographics.

Facing a $1 billion deficit by summer, Byrd-Bennett wants to “right-size” a portfolio of schools she says has 100,000 more seats than students.

Of the district’s 681 school buildings, 136 schools are considered by CPS to be more than half empty. Some 330 are under capacity, or “underutilized” according to district calculations.

If Byrd-Bennett were to accept all the panel’s recommendations and apply them district wide, the pool of remaining schools would number about 137, according to a Sun-Times analysis that filtered all CPS schools through the criteria.

“I look forward to giving the report a thoughtful review over the next few days to consider their recommendations,” Byrd-Bennett said in a statement Thursday. “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.”

Lloyd Bell was worried about Julian High School, where he sends his twin daughters and serves on the local school council.

The school had been on probation. Its capacity is under 70 percent.

Now he’s relieved since high schools could be spared.

“Because the next step would be Fenger,” he said. And his girls would have to cross gang lines to get there.

“Don’t take away our community institutions,” he said. “Don’t do that to your child.”

The commission also recommended that CPS not close any schools that are in the process of adding grades, that have more than 600 students, or that are at 70 percent capacity or higher. Nor should it touch schools that recently have been consolidated or experienced another major change.

“Kids that are already part of a consolidation or who have moved recently from one school to another — that’s not something you want to put them through again if you can avoid it,” Clark said.

The interim report contains no names of schools on the chopping block, though that’s initially what Byrd-Bennett sought. Clark said the final report, to be released in early March, won’t contain names, either.

“There was never any intent that the final decision — i.e., a list — would come from a source other than the people directly responsible, that is, the CEO and the Chicago Public School Board of Education,” Clark said.

After successfully lobbying Springfield for an extension, Byrd-Bennett now faces a March 31 deadline to publish a list of schools she’ll target. The Board of Education must vote by May 31.

The Chicago Teachers Union has been calling for a moratorium on all school closings and turnarounds, a sentiment CTU president Karen Lewis echoed Thursday after meeting with the commission.

“These are very serious actions to take in a community, and if you close a school in a community without understanding where the development in the community is going, that says to us, you have no intention to develop these communities,” Lewis said. “I don’t think they’re bad ideas.

“How do you implement them safely, how do you implement them for kids?” she continued.

“We need to spend less time thinking about spreadsheets, and more time thinking about children.”

Contributing: Becky Schlikerman, Art Golab

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