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Editorial: Slow down pace of school closures

Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett  |  Sun-Times files

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett | Sun-Times files

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Updated: March 15, 2013 1:21PM



No one can fairly accuse Chicago Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett of turning a deaf ear to Chicago public school families.

Byrd-Bennett is listening intently.

Chicago is duty bound to close scores of severely under-enrolled schools, having put off the job for a decade, and Byrd-Bennett is proving, bit by bit, that she is worthy of the public’s trust on this.

But Byrd-Bennett’s list of elemetary schools to be closed remains way too long to pull off by June.

On Wednesday Byrd-Bennett announced new criteria that reduced the number of under-enrolled elementary schools eligible for closure to 129, down from an initial list of 263 out of 472 schools.

And this is not the final list. Another round of 14 community meetings starting this week will spare more schools. Byrd-Bennett will hone in on safety concerns, which have not yet come into play in removing elementary schools from the closure list. She also intends to explore each school’s plans for reaching academic goals, the quality of its leadership and teacher turnover.

Byrd-Bennett earns points for accepting, with minor adjustments, the January recommendation of a commission she appointed, including sparing all high schools and top performing but underenrolled schools. On Wednesday, she removed more schools from the list based on community input, such as sparing isolated schools that have no schools nearby to absorb students.

The traditional CPS pattern has been to issue a final closure list and then consult with parents. The CEO has turned that on its head.

But that said, we remain convinced that CPS cannot possibly close dozens of schools humanely and sanely by June. Close schools, lots of them, but by June 2014 — hardly the distant future — not 2013.

We say this despite impressive efforts by CPS to prepare for the difficult closure and consolidation work ahead. More than ever before CPS has invested considerable energy and expertise into planning for closures, enlisting a real expert to oversee the operation and making it a top priority.

So why do we remain skeptical? In earlier editorials, we’ve laid out many reasons to spread out the closures, including problems with the one-size-fits-all formula that CPS uses to label a school as underutilized. CPS promised a deeper dive to understand those schools, and we don’t doubt that’s under way. But we wonder, for example, why three special education schools are still on the list. In addition:

◆ We worry about the “welcoming schools” that are to take in displaced students. Those schools won’t be identified until late March, giving them little time to prep for a huge influx. Plus, half the kids may end up at other schools that aren’t even expecting them. Just 48 percent of students from four schools closed last year enrolled in their “welcoming school.” One school sent kids to 45 different schools, about half of them no better academically than the one they left behind. It’s pretty hard to offer special supports for thousands of kids spread across CPS.

◆ A report this week by the Pew Charitable Trust lays out how hard it is for urban districts to dispose of closed buildings, undercutting potential savings. Chicago already is trying to unload 24 sites.

◆ A 2009 report by the Broad Foundation that looked at 10 districts that closed schools concluded that the process should take 12 to 18 months, not the shorter process under way here. In districts “where the process has been rushed to completion in less than 12 months, many districts observed more confusion, community discord and otherwise avoidable mistakes made because of a faster timetable,” the report concluded.



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