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Editorial: Two lessons learned

Updated: June 29, 2013 6:08AM

If Chicago learns nothing else from the school closings fight, here’s one essential takeaway:

The formula the school system uses to determine a building’s capacity — the foundation on which the entire school closure effort was built — is deeply flawed and must be fixed.

The closure decisions are behind us, and as we said after last week’s historic vote to close 50 schools this summer, the focus must turn to making CPS’ consolidation plan work.

But rest assured, that flawed building formula will rear its ugly head again. CPS is constantly looking where to locate new schools, which schools should get additions, and which schools should be closed or have to share space.

Consider the two most glaring problems, both identified most clearly by parents associated from the groups Apples 2 Apples and Raise Your Hand:

◆ The formula treats every school as if it had the same number of special-education students. That’s just fantasy. The rate at some schools tops 30 percent.

The formula assumes 30 children per homeroom and then allows for a small number of rooms for special education, art, music and the like. But special-education rooms are capped at far less, from five to 17 students, which means schools with high numbers need significantly more homerooms. The formula ignores that and grossly deflates the building’s utilization rate. Several schools, including Trumbull in Andersonville, are now unfairly being closed because of this flawed practice.

CPS officials defend the broad formula, saying they use it as a starting place and then look more deeply at each school’s individual circumstances. We haven’t seen nearly enough of that. CPS should follow the lead of other school districts, such as New York City’s, which use a far more nuanced formula that acknowledges the true space needed for special education in calculating building capacity.

◆ The formula grossly undercounts overcrowded schools and classrooms. Under the formula, a school is not considered overcrowded until it is at more than 120 percent of capacity, which translates to an average of 36 students per classroom (far above what the teacher contract calls for).

Calling a school at that level “efficiently used,” as CPS does without irony, is wrong. Schools above capacity are forced to pack kids into classrooms, give up rooms for art, music and library and resort to using closets and auditoriums as classrooms.

CPS needs to help heal some of the deep wounds from the latest school closing battle. Changing the formula would be one excellent place to start.

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