School & District Management

Chicago’s Closures Drove Most Students to Better-Rated Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — January 27, 2015 4 min read
A student walks down a hallway at Chicago's Jean de Lafayette Elementary School on its final day of operation in 2013. Lafayette was one of 50 schools that closed as part of a cost cutting and consolidation measure by the city's school officials.

The vast majority of students affected by Chicago’s massive school closures in 2013 enrolled in better-performing schools than the ones they left behind, a new report says. However, nearly one-third of those who did not attend the district’s designated “welcoming schools” chose schools with lower academic ratings, it says.

The report, released last week by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, is the latest in a series of studies of how the city’s closure of nearly 50 schools has impacted students and families in the nation’s third largest school district. The consortium’s analysis focused on students who were enrolled in grades K-7 at the time, and is based on data from the Chicago district and interviews with 95 families from 12 schools that were directly affected by the closures.

The findings could have broad implications for districts that are contemplating school closures or embarking on “portfolio” management models where parental choice is heavily emphasized.

The Chicago researchers found that parents did not necessarily choose new schools based on the district’s assigned academic ratings. Those findings dovetail with new research emerging from cities that rely heavily on school choice, including New Orleans, where a recent report from Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance found that factors such as location, after-care, and extracurricular activities were as important to parents—especially those who were low income—in making school choices as academics.

In selecting new schools, Chicago parents prioritized proximity to their homes, researchers found. The emphasis on distance stemmed in part from practical concerns, such as the ability to retrieve a child during bad weather. Researchers also found that students traveled roughly the same distance to school, regardless of whether they attended a lower-ranked school or one that was higher ranked. Proximity was also the main factor in determining why parents chose lower-performing schools. These findings, the researchers said, underscore the need for more high-quality schools in all neighborhoods and pose an imperative for districts to examine barriers parents encounter in choosing schools.

Besides academic performance and distance, choosing a “welcoming school” or another option was influenced by safety concerns and personal connections to schools.

The project’s lead researchers, Marisa de la Torre, the associate director for professional development at the consortium, and Molly F. Gordon, a senior research analyst, said families’ definitions of academic quality may differ from the district’s.

Academic Quality

For parents, academic quality may mean “is my child going to get the one-on-one attention that they need in school? Are the courses and curriculum geared toward the kinds of things my child needs?” Ms. Gordon said. “I think academic quality is just broadly defined by families, which makes sense, as most people don’t just judge schools based on test scores.”

Barbara Byrd Bennett, the CEO of the Chicago district, said the report “demonstrates that we kept our promises and upheld our commitments to our students and school communities.”

“The good news is that students are doing better academically, attendance rates are up, and rates of misconduct have decreased,” she said in a statement. “These results are based on the strategic, thoughtful, coordinated approach we took to managing the transition process.”

The report confirmed that the closures disproportionately affected the district’s most vulnerable students: The majority of the students qualified for free and reduced-price meals and lived in neighborhoods with higher crime rates than the average for district students. Eighty-eight percent of the students were African-American, and one-third of the shuttered schools housed programs for students with serious disabilities, according to the report.

And while the closures were aimed at moving students into higher-performing schools, researchers found that a higher-than-expected percentage of students enrolled in schools that were rated as Level 3, the district’s designation for the lowest-performing schools. Fewer students chose to attend Level 1 schools, the highest-ranking, than projected by district officials.

Though 93 percent of students enrolled in schools that were rated higher than their old schools, only 21 percent attended Level 1 schools, according to the report.

Previous research by the consortium found that when schools closed, only those students who attended schools that were significantly better than their old schools demonstrated higher outcomes in math and reading.

Families who lived in neighborhoods with more school options were less likely to choose the district’s designated “welcoming schools,” the study found. To help students make the transition to those schools, the district provided extra supports such as tutoring services, wireless internet access, libraries, art rooms, and new science, computer, and engineering labs.

Parents also faced barriers when selecting schools, the report found.

Some felt they were limited to the “welcoming schools.” Others said they didn’t have enough time and information to make the best decisions. Others had fewer choices because their children needed special education options that were not available at all schools. Safety concerns and a lack of transportation were also barriers for some parents.

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2015 edition of Education Week as Chicago’s Closures Drove Most to Higher-Rated Schools

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