School & District Management

Chicago Board Moves to Scale Down Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — February 01, 2005 4 min read
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Chicago’s high-profile bid to downsize many of its schools began to take shape last week, as district leaders approved a varied group of small schools slated to open in the fall.

The city’s board of education voted late last year to approve four small schools to open this coming September. By approving 12 more on Jan. 26, it took a major step in an aggressive, widely watched plan to expand educational options and improve student achievement by sprinkling scores of small schools around the city.

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New Schools in Chicago

The board is expected to approve two more schools this month, sealing 18 openings for the 2005-06 school year.

Chicago’s new schools are emerging in three ways: through the city’s charter school movement, its use of grant money to develop small schools, and Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 7-month-old Renaissance 2010 plan, which aims to close 60 underutilized or underperforming schools and reopen them as 100 small schools in the next five years. (“Chicago to ‘Start Over’ With 100 Small Schools,” July 14, 2004.)

Six of the schools expected to open in the fall will be run by the district. The other 12 will either be charter or “performance” schools, freed from many district regulations in exchange for meeting goals outlined in five-year contracts. The charter schools may hire their own personnel; the “performance” schools must use district staff members.

Local Groups

Of the new schools, 10 will be high schools, and eight will serve grades K-8. Only three will have brand-new buildings; the rest will open in existing buildings, most owned by the district.

Only one of the new schools will be run by a national organization: the ASPIRA Association, a Washington-based Latino youth-advocacy group. The rest will be operated by local nonprofit organizations or community groups, universities, groups of teachers, or organizations that already run charter schools in Chicago.

District officials praised the planned new schools as a strong early start in building quality and diversity into the city’s stock of 600 public schools.

Greg A. Richmond, who leads the 430,000-student district’s small-schools efforts, said he believes opposition to the plans is easing as people see not only schools closing—which prompted outcries—but new ones opening to serve neighborhood children.

“There is a lot of mistrust,” he said. “No one believed anything we said. But people will see that we are actually doing what we said we would do.”

Many who oppose the city’s strategy, however, see no such thing. Critical areas of concern remain.

The Chicago Teachers Union has blasted Renaissance 2010 for its use of charter and charter-like schools. The union released data showing that some regular Chicago schools outperform the quasi-independent charter schools on standardized tests. The union is also concerned because some of the models used in the plan need not employ unionized personnel.

Other groups have expressed worries that the school closures—such as the 10 that took place last spring—disproportionately affect poor children. Some pupils have had to transfer several times as their neighborhood schools have closed.

“It’s very destructive to these children to have to move to another school,” said Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago education reform group. “The schools they’ve closed are mostly in the poorest communities of the city. And it’s the low-income kids who are most disrupted by closures and forced moves.”

Shut Out?

Renaissance 2010 has been criticized as a tool of gentrification, unfolding as it is during a massive, 10-year city plan to replace high-rise public-housing projects with mixed-income developments. Many schools slated for closure are in those areas.

MarySue Barrett, the president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago nonprofit group that does public outreach for the city’s housing authority and developers on the housing project, said the challenges of remaking neighborhoods on such a broad scale are sobering. But she said the changes will be beneficial in the long run.

“The reality is, we are talking about improving schools for everyone,” she said.

Some activists maintain that Renaissance 2010 affords the public too little input on such matters as which schools should close, what types should open, and how they should be run. They note that many of the new schools are not required to have local school councils, the citizen panels that make many pivotal school decisions in Chicago.

But Anthony K. Tramil, the father of four Chicago schoolchildren, had only good things to say about his involvement with Renaissance 2010. He served on a district-appointed panel of people who evaluated proposals by groups vying to open a new school in his southwest neighborhood.

The panelists analyzed 10 proposals, interviewed the applicants, and recommended three to the district, which submitted the panel’s first choice to the school board. It was among the group approved at the board’s Jan. 26 meeting.

“This is unprecedented community involvement,” said Mr. Tramil, 43, a city firefighter. “We wanted the best school we could find, and we found it. We really made a major difference, not only in this city, but throughout the country, because a lot of other cities are going to look at what we’re doing.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Chicago Board Moves to Scale Down Schools

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