School & District Management

Chicago School Closures Punctuate Challenge for Urban Districts

By Lesli A. Maxwell — May 30, 2013 5 min read
A security staff member intervenes as Shannon Bennett, a community activist, attempts to speak in opposition to Chicago's school closure plan. The battle over closing schools in that city echoes those in several other big cities this year.
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A vote by the Chicago school board to shutter nearly 50 public schools in a single year sharply underscores a challenge several U.S. cities are being forced to address: how to balance the shaky economics of urban education against the needs of poor and minority communities.

In Chicago, members of the mayorally appointed board of education late last month approved closing 47 elementary schools, nearly all of them on the city’s impoverished south and west sides, at the end of the current academic year. (Two other elementary schools will close next school year.) No other major American city has closed down so many schools in a single year.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who controls the city school system, said the large-scale closures are critical to staving off a looming $1 billion budget deficit and present the best opportunity to direct more resources into schools serving Chicago’s most disadvantaged students. City officials often cite a loss of 145,000 students in the school system between 2000 and 2010, a figure that critics say is exaggerated because it doesn’t come from enrollment figures over time, but from U.S. Census data that account for the number of school-aged children, 5 to 19, who live in the city. The district has 600 schools; more than 470 are K-8 elementary campuses.

The closures were approved in the face of fierce resistance from people across the city and followed months of high-profile protests, public hearings, and two federal lawsuits filed by the Chicago Teachers Union. The union filed a third lawsuit last week in state court.

Around the Nation

While the district’s closures are the most striking, Chicago joins other major cities shutting down large numbers of schools to address shrinking enrollments, tight budgets, and competition from charter schools.

Later this month, Philadelphia public school officials will close down 24 campuses—representing one in every 10 schools in the 145,000-student district—a number that was scaled way back after a pitched battle with parents, students, and teachers.

The 45,000-student District of Columbia school system will close more than a dozen schools this summer after a federal judge earlier last month declined to block the closures as sought in a lawsuit arguing that the actions would disproportionately affect African-African and Latino students and those with disabilities.

Chicago school board President David Vitale listens to opponents of proposed school closures at a packed board meeting last month. The board voted to close 47 schools this year and two more next year.

A challenge for districts like Chicago—where the vast majority of students who will be affected by the closures are African-American—is a pervasive belief that race and social class play a role in deciding which schools are spared.

It’s been a particularly thorny issue in Chicago, where black students account for 43 percent of the total enrollment of 403,000, but 88 percent of the students whose schools are being shut down.

“There is no real model for how to do this,” said Emily Dowdall, a senior associate with the Pew Charitable Trusts, who has studied the impact of school closures in urban centers. “The closures usually happen in neighborhoods that are hard hit by population loss, and the school is often the last sign of real, tangible investment in the community.”

Ms. Dowdall said two districts recognized as having had the most success in building public acceptance for closures are the 26,000-student Pittsburgh district, which closed 22 schools in 2006, and the 16,000-student Kansas City, Mo., school system, which closed half its schools over the course of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years.

Both used outside experts to guide the closure process and had clear criteria for selected schools, she said.

Discrimination Charged

Sherice McDaniel is a Chicago parent whose son’s school was spared from closure a day before the final vote. She said parents never stopped demanding to know why Manierre Elementary, with an all African-American student body, would be merged with a school that is as racially isolated and has virtually the same achievement levels, when three other high-performing elementary schools are closer to Manierre’s North Side neighborhood.

“Those schools are more diverse, so when you just look at the numbers, and who is being shut down and who isn’t, how do you come to any other conclusion?” she said. “Black people feel like the city doesn’t want them.”

But Chicago officials—especially Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the district’s chief executive officer, who is African-American—pushed back strongly against charges of racial motivation in the school closure process. Black and Hispanic students together constitute 90 percent of the district’s enrollment.

At the school board meeting last month, Ms. Byrd-Bennett acknowledged the strong emotions that parents, students, teachers, and advocates have expressed. But rejecting the closures, she said, would keep “tens of thousands of children trapped in underutilized and underresourced schools.”

Special Education

Joshua Radinsky, a public school parent who is also an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said one of the biggest concerns across the city is what will happen to the roughly 2,800 students who are enrolled in special education programs and will be relocated in the fall because of the closures —an issue that’s also been raised in Philadelphia and the District of Columbia.

The pace of the closures will make it virtually impossible for special education students to transition to new school settings without disruption, he said.

“They say that on day one, these students will have all the special education services in their new schools,” Mr. Radinsky said.

Ms. Byrd-Bennett, in her testimony before the school board, said that district officials had contacted about 70 percent of the families with special education students affected by the closures, and that care would be given to devising transition plans for students with individualized education programs, or IEPs.

Mr. Radinsky, a member of a research and advocacy organization called Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education, or CREATE, also doubts that the district will save some $800,000 per year for each school shut down. He believes the system is in financial trouble, but said that previous waves of closures in the city “have not produced a windfall” and the district’s decision to open more than a dozen new charter schools next school year undercuts its argument that there are too many schools for too few students.

Ms. McDaniel, whose son is in 2nd grade at Manierre, said she is “incredibly relieved” that the school she credits with helping the boy—a long-delayed speaker who learned to talk after she enrolled him in the school’s early-childhood program—will remain open. For months, she said, she and other parents argued vigorously that the school’s 2-year-old partnership with the Erikson Institute, a graduate school focused exclusively on early-childhood development, was one of several compelling reasons to spare it from closure.

“They never seemed to be convinced by what we were telling them and showing them with the school’s data,” Ms. McDaniel said. “I don’t know what changed their minds, but I’m happy for my son’s sake and for our community that we will still have our school.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2013 edition of Education Week as Chicago School Closure Battle Echoes in Other Cities


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