Closing Schools Without Discussion Won't Fix Chicago's System

City officials are experimenting on disadvantaged neighborhoods, often without input from families, students, and teachers.

Demonstrators at a Chicago Teachers Union protest (John Gress/Reuters)

"School reform" is one of those phrases that everybody, it seems, can get behind. Progressives like it because, hey, it's reform, and progressives like reform. Conservatives like it because "school reform" implies that government and unions are doing a bad job running the schools, and conservatives are generally skeptical of government control and certainly no fans of unions.

The only people who, occasionally, seem to express doubts about school reform are the schools, teachers, and communities who have to deal with it.

This is certainly the case with the latest, sweeping round of school reform in Chicago. In March, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city was going to close 61 school buildings, affecting some 30,000 students, the vast majority of them between kindergarten and 8th grade. The move is necessary, the city argues, in order to deal with a massive budget crunch; the district is supposed to face a $1 billion deficit next year. But the city has also argued that moving students from poorly performing schools to better-performing schools will have educational benefits for everybody.

All of the city's claims are dubious at best -- from the number of schools being closed, to the number of students affected, to whether the closings will actually save money, to the formula CPS uses to decide which schools are under-utilized and ripe for closing. But the argument that the changes will benefit students in poorly performing schools seems especially hard to credit when you look closely at any of the schools actually affected, or at the way the changes have been implemented.

Crispus Attucks, for example, is a southside elementary school that is being phased out over two years. When I researched the school in the course of writing a profile for the Every Chicago Public School Is My School website, I found that Attucks has one of the largest homeless populations in the city: An astonishing 48% of its student body is homeless. Given the chaotic nature of life outside of school for these kids, you'd think that CPS would want to provide a stable school environment. Instead, Attucks has been repeatedly targeted for closure and disruption. In 2004, it was a receiving school for the shuttered Raymond Elementary. In 2008, the then-building was abandoned with virtually no community input or information sessions, and the school was moved 12 blocks south. Many of the students who made that move will now be shifting again to Beethoven Elementary, a school that itself has a large homeless population. How all of this can possibly be in the interest of Attucks's students is unclear.

Dewey Elementary, another southside elementary school, is not being closed, but it is being "turned around," which means that all of its staff, from principals to janitors, will be fired, and new staff hired. According to Colleen McKinley, a third-grade teacher at Dewey, the news of the turnaround was presented as a done deal at a 7:30 staff meeting; neither teachers nor the community had any input. When a parent group circulated a petition, 80% of parents signed, every single one of them agreeing that they did not want the school to be turned around, or for the current staff to be let go. McKinley was particularly concerned about the turnaround because, like Attucks, Dewey has a significant homeless population. "[C]afeteria workers, janitors, security guards, and teacher aides will lose their jobs," McKinley said. "This means that the Dewey children will lose numerous stable, nurturing adults who know them well and support their learning. The job losses will further destabilize the Englewood neighborhood. "

Bowen, a southside high school, is also not facing closure. Instead, it is being subdivided; Bowen will retain its building, but it will share space with a charter school from the Noble Charter School Network. According to a teacher I spoke to who wished to remain anonymous, this is part of an ongoing history of rejiggering. Starting in 2002, Bowen was divided into four "small schools," with four separate administrations. Then the small schools were abandoned in 2011 and the school consolidated as one school -- with everyone having to reapply for their jobs. The decision to add the charter school this year seems to have been made without input from the principal or the alderman, much less from teachers. Even a hearing officer appointed by CPS stated that dividing the school was a bad idea. But, the teacher I spoke to noted dryly, "CPS has shown at best a limited interest in considering the opinions they solicit."

Brentano, a school on the city's Westside, was slated for closing. An active parent group intervened, however, and managed to convince CPS to take the school off the list. On the one hand, this looks like a rare instance in which CPS accepted community input. The reason why they did so in this case, though, is telling. As Cassie Creswell, a parent in the the Brentano neighborhood, told me, "It would be very naive to think that race and class played no role in Brentano being taken off the list." Brentano is in a gentrifying neighborhood. "I think the decision makers at CPS," Creswell said, "were surprised to find white people actively defending a neighborhood school where their kids were not yet enrolled, and that helped get Brentano off the list." Creswell added that the vast majority of students at Brentano are low-income and minority, and they need and deserve to have their public school kept open. But so, she said, do all the other students whose schools are being taken away from them.

In public discussions, violence and gang activity is often mentioned as a central reason for not closing schools. There are valid concerns about students traveling longer distances, and possibly across gang territory lines, to school. But, as the teacher at Bowen pointed out, the students he works with "aren't safe as it is." Violence is a massive problem in Chicago's schools. It's not a problem that's going to be solved by the closings, but it's not a problem caused by the closings either.

Rather, the violence and the closings have a common cause. That cause is Chicago's history of income and racial segregation, which has made it possible for the central bureaucracy to ignore the needs and interests of disadvantaged communities around the city. The most recent school closings are not an isolated incident, as the histories of Attucks, Bowen, and other south and Westside schools makes clear.

Instead, the closings are only the latest example of a pattern of "reform" and churn, in which neighborhoods without the resources or political clout to defend themselves are reorganized and experimented on without either input from, or concern about the impact on, teachers, students, or communities. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the school closings are not something being done for, or with, students or parents, but something being done to them. Wendy Katten, a parent at Burley, one of schools further north that is not closing, and the director of the parent coalition Raise Your Hand, pointed out damningly that "the CEO of the district did not attend one community hearing."*

I don't doubt that the Emanuel administration believes that what they are doing is best for students and the district. I'm sure they are sincerely convinced that closing neighborhood schools and opening charters instead will in the long run improve the district's financial health and outcomes for students. The problem is that it's difficult to make good decisions, without input from, or respect for, the people your decisions are going to directly affect. As a result, Chicago does not have a consistent, thoughtful reform effort. Instead, it has a series of random, vacillating diktats which seem designed mostly to save money by pulling resources from communities that already don't have very many.

The saddest part of this story is that many of the schools CPS is closing do have difficulties. If the administration were willing to listen to teachers and parents, its commitment to reform could actually help students. As Jal Mehta, the author of a recent book on school reform, wrote to me, "Would-be school 'reformers' would be wise to build relationships with the people whose interests they are seeking to serve; if they did so, they would be much better able to make hard and when necessary unpopular choices, because they would be building on a longer-term platform of shared trust and legitimacy."

CPS has done the opposite of that. As a result, school reform in Chicago is not a solution to anything. Instead, it's a big part of the problem.

*Update: This article previously stated that Augustus H Burley Elementary school would be closing. It will not, and we regret the error.