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Editorial: The battle over, make schools plan work

Chicago Teacher's UniPresident Karen Lewis speaks with CPS CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett prior board meeting Chicago Public School headquarters May 22 2013.

Chicago Teacher's Union President Karen Lewis speaks with CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett prior to the board meeting at Chicago Public School headquarters May 22, 2013. | Jessica Koscielniak ~ Sun-Times

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The Chicago Board of Education should have done more.

Its six members on Wednesday voted to close a record 50 schools in June — 49 grammar schools and one high school program — that CPS says are under-enrolled, sparing just four from the final closure list.

The 11th-hour decision to save the four, including two this page profiled, is a welcome victory for those deserving communities.

It wasn’t enough, but the vote is over.

Now it’s time to move forward.

Just one month remains before school lets out. In a mere three months, children will return for a new school year.

The work ahead for the Chicago school system is immense. It must consolidate nearly 100 schools, make space in 11 buildings for two or more schools and oversee the “turnaround” of five schools, a reform that includes hiring all new staff.

Schools officials insist they can do it. They have laid plans for smooth consolidations like never before. They’ve pledged to invest in receiving schools like never before.

We have long supported closing severely under-enrolled schools and redirecting those scarce resources elsewhere. We applaud the CPS board for making these difficult decisions. But CPS’ final closure list includes schools that, without question, should remain open. Yet all six board members voted unanimously to close every school but one, displaying an unfounded faith that the school system got every decision just right.

We don’t doubt that the board listened to the thousands who spoke at community hearings and that they struggled over these decisions. But they listened more closely to the CPS powers that be.

And the list, even where it names the right schools, includes so many buildings that safe and humane consolidations by opening day in late August are far from guaranteed.

But now it’s up to all of us to help the school system pull this off.

This includes the Chicago Teachers Union, which is still pursuing a lawsuit to stop the closures and lobbed its usual inflammatory rhetoric in its post-vote news release.

That said, when CTU President Karen Lewis spoke at Wednesday’s board meeting, she struck the right tone in pledging to work with the board to nail down specifics on how to improve schools.

This includes Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose rhetoric about students being “trapped” in the closing schools only inflamed passions and hurt families who walk through those doors every day. His constant peddling of the notion that all students would end up at a better school also inflamed. Test score comparisons made clear that simply isn’t the case.

And this includes parents and advocates whose passionate defense of their schools was truly inspiring. We can only hope they will channel some of that passion into making the consolidations work.

A key issue will be ensuring that students are safe, both en route to new schools and once they are inside. Board member Mahalia Hines, a former principal in Englewood, came down hard on parents on Wednesday, placing the onus on them to teach their children to get along and not to fuel neighborhood and gang rivalries.

There is a real opportunity there. But the schools have a huge role to play, and a profound responsibility, to help kids shed those rivalries and keep them safe from very real harm.

CPS also would be wise to consider building-sharing ideas advanced by at least two closing schools, Duprey and Courtenay, as well as the idea of adding more bus routes to receiving schools.

Chicago learned a lot over the last six months, particularly about the flaws in CPS’ utilization formula — and we will have more to say about that in the coming days.

But starting today, the focus must be on August — the new school year is just three months away.



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