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Schools CEO pledges ‘respect,’ ‘nurturing and support’ she says missing in past school closings

Todd Babbitz  (left) Chief TransformatiOfficer for Chicago listened as  BarbarByrd-Bennett Chief Executive Officer for Chicago Public Schools spoke

Todd Babbitz , (left) Chief Transformation Officer for Chicago listened as Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Chief Executive Officer for Chicago Public Schools, spoke at the monthly Chicago Public Schools monthly board meeting on Wednesday, January 23, 2013. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: February 25, 2013 12:47PM

Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her aides admitted to the Board of Education Wednesday that the district has not only done a poor job of closing schools in the past, but it can’t guarantee that children who will be displaced by school closings will get to attend classes in their own neighborhoods.

Despite that, Mayor Rahm Emanuel won’t shy away from shuttering school buildings.

“We know the size of our problem. We know the amount of time it’s been deferred and delayed in being dealt with. And we know this is the year to finally step up and deal with it,” the mayor said at a separate event.

Several board members asked Byrd-Bennett to make sure that students whose schools were closed, were properly supported. “There has not been really good experiences in the past with many of these students,” Board Member Dr. Mahalia Hines said. “It’s going to be really important how we transition these kids who are moving into other schools.”

Her colleague, Andrea Zopp, also wondered how the district would manage, saying, “We were challenged when we did 10 schools.”

Todd Babbitz, head of the CPS department that handles school closings, could not provide specifics.

“We know that in the past we haven’t done a terrific job of tracking students and understanding their outcomes,” he told the board. “That will be addressed this year.”

Byrd-Bennett announced Friday which of her commission’s recommendations she’ll heed when she decides which schools to shutter or consolidate, promising to leave high schools and high performing schools alone. She’s taking time to consider additional suggestions the panel made and said she’ll release a list of the schools eligible for closing on Feb. 13.

On Wednesday, Byrd-Bennett, who’s overseen school closings in Cleveland and Detroit, promised sensitivity.

“This isn’t about buildings to me,” she said. “This is about moving heart, blood and soul of children and families, and that’s delicate, and it must be done with respect, and the kind of nurturing and support that children and families need in that transition.

“We are struggling, striving, and we will be successful in the level of detail for the kids of transitions we ultimately will be making,” she continued. “I’m not sure that level of thought was applicable last year.”

The next round of community meetings, starting Monday, will involve what to do next, Byrd-Benentt said.

Children in shuttered schools must be sent schools that are at least as good if not better, she said.

“Unilaterally right now, we cannot say in every neighborhood a parent can go to a neighborhood school that is of a higher quality option because often in places it simply doesn’t not exist at this time,” she said.

The Commission had warned against drastic action.

“CPS needs to make sure it’s not fixing what isn’t broken,” the Commission on School Utilization said in its interim report, published Jan. 10. “The District must not shutter schools that, though technically underutilized, are vibrant hubs of community activity housed in high-quality buildings, and that serve as an anchoringforce in their neighborhoods,”

“We do not and we will not in fact assume that any number of school closings ­— large or small — is a foregone conclusion.”

Very few students have moved to higher-performing schools in prior years, the commission also reported. “Too often, they move from one low-performing school to another low-performing school.

But if the School Closing Commission does indeed recommend a go-slow approach, Emanuel appears to be in no mood to sign on to that approach.

“We cannot give our kids the high-quality education given how spread thin we are. We have 100,000 fewer children. I have to be sensitive to its impact. On the other hand, I also have to be sensitive to the impact when you have fewer kids. The ability to give them a quality education when you’re spread that thin is not capable. So we have to balance those needs, and we will do it.”

The mayor said he has no idea what the school closing commission will ultimately recommend. But, he made it clear he supports the suggestions that Byrd-Bennett has already embraced.

“They made one or two recommendations the other day, which was no high schools, which Barbara and CPS support [and] I do. They were also clear about don’t touch Level 1 schools that are doing well on the education of our children,” the mayor said.

“The goal here is high-quality education of our children.”

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