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Anxiety grows as CPS releases preliminary school closings list

After trimming the number of schools that could be closed to 129, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's school administration has entered the latest and what is likely to be the most intense phase so far in trying to determine which schools should be shut.

Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett is expected to pare the preliminary list, released Wednesday, before unveiling a final one at the end of March. She said administrators will determine which schools are saved in the coming weeks amid a final round of community meetings to hear arguments from parents, teachers and community groups about why their schools should stay open.

If a hearing Wednesday night in North Lawndale was any indication, CPS still has a long way to go to gain the public's trust.

"Our schools don't need to close," Dwayne Truss, vice chairman of CPS' Austin Community Action Council, said in front of hundreds of people packed inside a church auditorium in the West Side neighborhood. "CPS is perpetrating a myth that there's a budget crisis."

CPS initially said 330 of its schools are underenrolled, the chief criterion for closing. Members of a commission assembled to gather public input on the issue told CPS officials earlier this year that closing a large number of schools would create too much upheaval. The Tribune, citing sources, said the commission indicated a far smaller number should be closed than initially feared, possibly as few as 15.

CPS then started holding its own hearings and on Wednesday, while following many of the formal recommendations made by the Commission on School Utilization, said 129 schools still fit the criteria for closing.

The new number and the latest round of hearings sets the stage for the administration to counter questions about the district's abilities to close a large number of schools and the need to do so.

For many who have already turned up to school closing meetings, this final round of hearings will be even more critical. School supporters must show how they plan to turn around academic performance and build enrollment, and also make the case for any security problems that would be created by closing their school.

"We are prepared now to move to the next level of conversation with our community and discuss a list of approximately 129 schools that still require further vetting and further conversation," Bryd-Bennett said. "We are going to take these 129 and continue to sift through these schools."

In the past, political clout has played a role in the district's final decisions. Already this year, several aldermen have spoken out on behalf of schools in their wards.

On the Near Northwest Side, for instance, the initial list of 330 underused schools included about six in the 1st Ward. Ald. Proco "Joe" Moreno helped organize local school council members, school administrators and parents to fight any closing. He also took that fight to leaders in City Hall and within CPS' bureaucracy. Nearly all of the schools in the ward were excluded from the list of 129.

"It is effort and it's organizing and not just showing up at meetings and yelling. Anybody can do that," Moreno said. "Those schools that proactively work before those meetings and explain what they are doing, what they need and that they are willing to accept new students, that's when politics works.

"My responsibility in this juncture was to focus on these schools," he said. "I had to work on the inside, with CPS and with City Hall, and with my schools on the outside."

Most of the schools on the list of 129 are on the West, South and Southwest sides, many in impoverished neighborhoods that saw significant population loss over the last decade. Largely spared were the North and Northwest sides.

In all, more than 43,000 students attend those 129 schools on the preliminary list, according to CPS records.

The area with the most schools on the list is a CPS network (the district groups its schools in 14 networks) that runs roughly from Madison Street south to 71st Street and from the lake to State Street. The preliminary list includes 24 schools in that area.

The Englewood-Gresham network has the second-largest number, 19, while the Austin-North Lawndale network where Wednesday night's meeting was held still has 16 schools on the list.

CPS critics said the preliminary list is still too large to be meaningful and that the district's promise to trim it before March 31 is only a tactic to make the final number seem reasonable.

"They started out with such a far-fetched, exaggerated list of schools, many of which are nowhere near underutilized," said Wendy Katten, co-founder of the parent group Raise Your Hand. "They might appear to be looking like they're listening, but they're not. They have not done a thorough and substantive assessment of these schools."

Following the commission's recommendations, CPS last month removed high schools and schools performing at a high level academically from consideration. On Wednesday, the district said schools with more than 600 students or utilization rates of at least 70 percent have also been taken out of consideration for closing.

Over the next month, CPS will look at schools on the preliminary list to determine what led to the declines in enrollment, and whether the schools have academic plans in place to drive improvement.

"I want to find out the reasons why a school was underutilized," Byrd-Bennett said. "If your academic progress and goals are off kilter, if, in fact, you don't have consistent leadership, if, in fact, there are circumstances surrounding that school like mobility, truancy and other factors that we know lead to parents making their decisions with their feet, then I need to know those ... and how they're continuing to address it."

Byrd-Bennett said safety issues connected with moving students to other neighborhoods will also be considered. CPS is working with the Chicago Police Department and using its own data to determine whether closing specific schools could jeopardize the safety of students.

Emanuel has made closing schools central to his efforts to change the face of CPS. Last year he persuaded state lawmakers to give CPS an extension for announcing which schools it intended to close.

Byrd-Bennett says the school district needs to close a significant number of underused schools to "right-size" the district and address a $1 billion deficit expected next year. District officials say closings this year will be based primarily on underenrollment but have begun looking at academic performance as they whittle down their list.

Byrd-Bennett said she accepted most of the commission's recommendations on closings, including those on high schools and top-performing schools. Level 2 schools, the middle tier academically, that show moderate improvement in test scores won't be closed if they've also had increased enrollment over the last three years or shown other gains like better test scores. Still, there are 33 Level 2 schools on the preliminary list.

District officials have also removed from consideration the worst-performing schools that have shown improvements like better scores on student assessment tests.

In addition, CPS added some criteria: Schools separated from another neighborhood school by more than a mile, and schools that are surrounded by neighborhood schools that are at capacity or overcrowded, are no longer in line to be shut down.

Rodney Estvan, education policy analyst with disability rights group Access Living, said that although he believes CPS is "definitely thinking about issues like special needs," he worries about what will be done to schools with large numbers of special needs students. Thirty-nine of the 129 schools on the preliminary list take in students with disabilities from across the city, he said.

"This will be daunting because we'll be relocating large numbers of significantly disabled kids," Estvan said.

The neighborhood school closing issue comes as Chicago continues to add controversial charter schools.

Just before the preliminary list was released, some aldermen called for a moratorium on new charter schools starting in 2014, arguing it doesn't make sense to add charters at a time the city is considering closing public schools that don't have enough students.

"Why would you add more seats when we reportedly have 100,000 excess seats in Chicago Public Schools?" asked Ald. Matt O'Shea, 19th, a Southwest Side ward home to many public school teachers.

Emanuel has been a strong supporter of charters, saying they give parents more school choice.

The measure was just a resolution, which means it would carry no legislative authority. Still, mayoral ally Ald. Danny Solis, 25th, made a motion to have the resolution moved to the council's Rules Committee, long-known as a place where proposed legislation goes to die.

Tribune reporter John Byrne contributed.

nahmed@tribune.com

jchase@tribune.com


Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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