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School chief calling in the Marine to help in school closings

Tom Tyrrell Chicago Public Schools his office CPS Headquarters Tuesday January 29 2013. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Tom Tyrrell of Chicago Public Schools in his office at CPS Headquarters Tuesday January 29, 2013. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 2, 2013 7:05AM

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is so concerned about the transfer of students in the upcoming school closing process she’s leaning on a retired Marine colonel who once quietly sorted out a prisoner exchange in the wake of war in Kosovo to figure it out.

Some in Chicago might point to warring factions in this battle over public schools. And gang borders likely will be crossed when children from schools to be closed are sent elsewhere. And all must be decided and carried out in the months leading up to Aug. 26, the first day of school.

“I’m not saying it looks similar to now, but there was great distrust to the process on both sides but there was a lot of chaos and stress,” Tom Tyrrell said in an exclusive interview Tuesday with the Chicago Sun-Times in which he and Byrd-Bennett laid out plans they have so far to transition children into new schools. What is similar, he continued: “It requires you to plow through the noise and get the planning done and get it done in detail and then be flexible enough to adapt as the plan unfolds.”

Tyrrell and Byrd-Bennett are promising that by the first day of school, a mere seven months away — “all students attending welcoming schools will experience a safe and seamless transition and have an opportunity at a fresh start.”

Any supports a CPS student now has will follow him or her to a new school. And kids will be tracked through the new school, Tyrrell said. The district is setting up a web site and hotline, and will host a fair for parents to learn about their options and events to help merge families, staff and students in new school communities, he said.

“This is our highest priority. If we do one thing right this year, we’re going to do the transition right,” Tyrrell said in Byrd-Bennett’s office. “What ‘transition right’ means is that we take care of the students and that we mitigate any negative impact on their participation in this.”

Absent still from the plan are many key details, the greatest of which is how many schools will be closed. Also unknown is whether students from a closed school will be sent to one or more “welcoming” schools that will receive them.

Byrd-Bennett wouldn’t speculate on a number or even a range of schools to shutter until the community hearings are concluded. She’ll release an interim list of schools on Feb. 13 that could be targeted after her guidelines eliminate safe schools.

A Sun-Times analysis finds that 193 schools remain up for grabs after taking off the table the schools that Byrd-Bennett has declared safe including high schools and high performing schools .

Sources close to her commission told the Sun-Times Monday they’ll recommend that she shutter no more than 20 schools so parents, teachers and bureaucrats will have an opportunity to adjust to the upheaval.

“They haven’t demonstrated to us that they can close 100 or even 50 schools. They don’t have the expertise to accomplish that in such a short time-frame. When they closed down as many as 12 schools, it was a disaster,” said a source close to the commission.

The commission source noted that there is “no urgency” to close 100 schools at once, since the long-awaited consolidation would save money over time, not immediately. CPS estimated each closed school would save $500,000 to $800,000. The district insists it must close schools that are under capacity not only to deal with a budget hole but to be able to redirect money paying for things like building repairs into classrooms.

CPS insists it can handle as many closings as needed.

“We can do a lot more than we need to do or want to do,” Tyrell, 59, said.

He’s overseeing a team of about CPS 40 staffers dedicated to planning the transition process, as best they can without knowing which schools will close.

He’ll also hire, for each school set to receive new kids from closed schools, a retired principal to serve as a “principal transition coordinator”.

By March 31, when Byrd-Bennett presents her list to the state, Tyrrell wants to have a base plan in place that can be adapted to the affected schools.

It’ll include assigning students in welcoming schools as student guides, hosting joint LSC meetings and giving principals a choice of supports among counselors, academic tutors and instructional coaches.

“We can do this,” Byrd-Bennett said Tuesday. “I’ve done it before with far less.”

Byrd-Bennett has closed schools before in several other urban districts, most recently, 30 schools in Detroit.

She also closed 20-some in Cleveland and another 21 while consulting in Pittsburgh.

The Chicago Teachers Union argues that Chicago has a different set of problems, including incredible violence.

“She’s not a Chicagoan,” said Jackson Potter, staff coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union. “She doesn’t understand these things.”

The CTU has asked in vain for a moratorium on all school closings until the district studies the impact of past closures and consolidations on the students who were moved.

“We’ve seen in the past that the district has been really inept at understanding all of the complexity in various communities,” Potter said.

Englewood High School closed in 2005, sending its students to many other area high schools. Austin High School kids had to travel miles east to Clemente, where violence flared up, he said.

“There’s any number of variables that trigger a specific need in terms of intervention that the dsitrict is unable to provide in an existing school commumity.

Being in a new place “exacerbates the things that create trauma in their lives and there’s an impact on students who are are already there,” Potter said.

“Barbara [Byrd-Bennett] has said she wants to hear from the communities, and they’re listening, but here is a district that has never done this well saying they want to expand it tenfold?” Potter asked.

“How does that even work?

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