Erring (Too Much?) On The Side of Caution (Chicago IL)

Chicago school officials announced this morning that just three elementary schools (Bunche, Grant, and Howland) and one high school (Englewood) would be closed this year due to low performance -- all of them on the South and West Sides.

In what clearly seems like an effort to limit controversy, CPS used fairly low standards -- just 25 percent meeting standards (vs. 40 for probation or 47 for NCLB this spring) -- kept the list very small this time around, announced it much earlier than in the past, limited options mostly to neighborhood schools, and handed out exemptions like candy:

Seven schools (Bethune, Harvard, Lathrop, McNair, Nash, Paderewski,and Smyth) were exempted becuase they have a principal who's relatively new.

Three schools (Burke, Delano, and Medill) were exempted for another year because they are CTU Partnership schools.

Three schools (Dewey, Henderson, and Mason) were exempted for lack of nearby options.

Two schools (DePriest and Schiller) were exempted because closing them would have required children to move twice in two years.

One school (Morse) was exempted because it's only been on probation for a year.

Special education and homeless figures were considered, but not made formal criteria, according to the Board.

However, several questions remain unanswered:

How closely did CPS follow its own criteria (and thus establish some legitimacy to the process)? Were there any "wiggle" factors in the process that only insiders would know?

How will the school communities and advocacy groups react to today's announcement? (Recent public opposition has been limited to CTU objections to privatization, but closing schools is usually highly contentious and hearings are scheduled for each school.)

How will the to-be-closed schools keep things together during a full semester as lame ducks? (What happens if they lose all their teachers or kids to transfers, or alternatively if they post substantial improvements in test scores on the 2005 tests?)

Will the lack of many closings this year create a bottleneck for new schools/RFP opportunities this spring? (CPS is still trying to mend fences with many of the 90 Ren10 applicants from the fall who didn't get a school, and needs closed buildings to provide a supply of new RFP opportunities.)

Even more importantly, what is the plan to improve things at the other 23 schools (16 ES, 7 HS), that failed to meet the quite modest academic criteria -- especially those three (Dewey, Henderson, and Mason) that were exempted for lack of nearby alternatives (and could theoretically continue to be exempted for many years to come)? Dewey's average gain is just 0.66 -- one of the lowest of the lot. Henderson's 2004 ITBS score was just 20.1 percent at or above. Mason's 4-year ITBS average is just 20.6 percent at or above.

Leaving schools like this off the closing list seems like a major flaw in the closings plan, not to speak of being inconsistent. In a last-minute addition, CPS is allowing students whose schools are closed to use the NCLB transfer option to travel outside their neighborhoods. If you're going to allow kids to get on buses, why not close Dewey, Henderson, and Mason like the other three and begin the process of creating new and better options in those areas?

Similarly, why aren't all of the children being given the option of going to a much better-performing school, rather than two or three nearby but only somewhat better schools (or whatever few NCLB transfer slots are available)? As we know from the recent school deseg spat, CPS can find space at good schools when it has to, but rarely does otherwise.

Of the 14 designated receiving schools for the three elementaries to be closed, only 4 (Dvorak, O'Toole, Herbert, and Lafayette) are at or above the 40 percent ISAT 2004 composite score cutoff for being on probation, and only one (Dvorak) meets the 40 percent ITBS 2004 reading cutoff. Can't CPS do better than that?

For more on the criteria, see my previous posting:
Closing Criteria Unveiled, New Schools OKd (January 24)

See also:
Just 4 schools face closure in 2010 plan Chicago Sun-Times
4 Chicago schools to close in June Chicago Tribune


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