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A Tale of Two Schools (Summary and Introduction)

Summary: A Tale of Two Schools

On December 28, 2011, Simon Guggenheim Elementary School paraprofessional and homeless education coordinator Sherri Parker received an alarming call from one of her students’ parents. The student’s mother informed Parker that shortly before Christmas, the school had called her and recommended she transfer her child to another school. The caller said that since Guggenheim would be closing, the teachers would not return after Winter Break. Later in the day, despite the parent’s affirmation that she wanted her child to remain at Guggenheim, an official Chicago Public Schools transfer form was delivered to the family’s temporary residence.

More families contacted Parker, notifying her that they had also been asked to transfer their children to other schools. Hearings on the proposed closure of Guggenheim had not yet been held and the Chicago Board of Education would not vote on school actions for two months, yet there was a deliberate attempt already in motion to transfer out Guggenheim’s homeless students.

At its February meeting, the Board approved the shuttering of Guggenheim. This was the culmination of years of actions placing the West Englewood neighborhood school in a constant state of instability. In its final two years, the school had three different principals, making it nearly impossible to develop any long-term plans for improvement. After fighting off a closing attempt in 2010, the new Chicago Public Schools-appointed administration forced out tenured teachers and left their positions vacant for months, delaying the academic and socio-emotional development of more than 100 students. Class sizes ballooned out of control, epitomized by a 42-student 3rd grade class at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year. The closing threats and the unsupportive administration divided the Guggenheim community and teachers felt disrespected by the district’s failure to fulfill their requests for essential resources. Parents were literally shut out of the school and the Local School Council no longer had monthly meetings. After failing in its attempt to close the school in 2010, CPS pushed forward with a destructive plan, cutting teachers and the community out of the school improvement process. CPS then used the poor test scores and hostile school climate that it created through years of disinvestment and destabilization to justify the school’s closure in 2012.

On the West Side, Jacob Beidler Elementary faced similar worries. In 2011, CPS announced its intention to close the East Garfield Park neighborhood school and hand its building over to a charter school. Beidler students, teachers, and administrators were appalled by CPS’s decision, which was announced on the same day that the Board of Education approved the long-anticipated Beidler Campus Park. The Beidler community rallied, marched, and organized against the closing, finally convincing the school district to withdraw the proposal.

Two years and three CEOs later, CPS was back again, placing Beidler on the list of 129 schools that new CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett would consider for closure in 2013. Anger and fear flooded the Beidler community, which admonished CPS for interrupting students’ learning once again with threats of displacement. Like in 2011, the community fought for its school and was one of only two East Garfield Park neighborhood elementary schools to avoid direct impact from the 2013 proposed school actions.

How did all of this happen? What barriers to improvement do schools like Guggenheim and Beidler face, and what does CPS do to address these difficulties? What supports does CPS provide, and what additional resources would help schools succeed? When schools are announced for closure, what is the value of community input at CPS hearings, and to what extent do CPS representatives encourage an open discussion with all involved parties? How smooth and effective are the transition plans, and how does CPS ensure that students continue to learn without suffering a significant drop in morale?Through case studies of Guggenheim and Beidler, A Tale of Two Schools: The Human Story Behind Destructive School Actions in Chicago uses testimony from teachers, staff, administrators and community leaders to answer these questions and to provide a much needed examination of the causes and effects of school actions.

Both Guggenheim and Beidler faced incredible resource shortages. Obsolete technology would routinely break down, textbooks were not available for all students, and teachers bought more than half of their supplemental materials out-of-pocket. CPS made it difficult for schools to educate the whole child, providing insufficient wraparound services and neglecting to fund art, music, physical education, foreign language and technology classes on a regular basis. By placing utmost importance on holistic reforms and fully utilizing its few resources, Beidler is building a stable school climate based on collaboration and a clear vision for the future. Guggenheim, however, never got this chance.

Despite butchering the transition at Guggenheim and failing to give schools essential resources, CPS now wants to close 54 schools, the most at one time in American history. In the past few years, the criteria for school actions have been capricious and conflicting. In 2012, CPS stated that it was closing “under-performing” schools to “help” students, but this year, CPS is “helping” students by shuttering “underutilized” schools and supposedly providing more resources for full or overcrowded schools. Had it survived last year’s school actions, Guggenheim, which was overcrowded for many years, would not be targeted for closure under the 2013 criteria. Rather than instituting contradictory policies year-after-year, apparently based on the whims of its ever-changing Central Office administration, CPS needs to focus on research-based aspects of school improvement.

Instead of closing neighborhood schools, CPS must target resources to strengthen existing programs, add supports, remove inequities, provide schools with stable leadership and ensure that teachers have what they need to educate and nurture their students. Schools cannot be saved by closing them, and communities cannot prosper without well, resourced, fully supported, quality schools. CPS is contributing to a vicious cycle of disinvestment and population flight that severely hinders the possible revival of established African-American and integrated communities.

Introduction

For years, students enrolled in racially and economically segregated schools on the South and West sides of Chicago have lacked the resources of many of their North Side and magnet school peers. On the March 21, 2013, edition of Chicago Tonight, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett stated that families and teachers in under-resourced schools should be angry that their children and students were not “the beneficiaries of what other children have.”1 As Byrd-Bennett indicates, these resource deficiencies have enraged communities. These communities want state-of-the-art technology for their children. They want arts and music. They want a well-staffed faculty to ensure small class sizes and provide one-on-one instruction and intervention. Parents want a full science and social studies curriculum that emphasizes experiential and tactile learning, not just textbooks and lectures. They want a diverse offering of after-school programming. Parents want high quality wraparound services. As CPS continues to dis-invest in these areas, resources at many South and West side schools are becoming even scarcer, while at the same time, the district punishes these schools for not meeting performance benchmarks.

Rather than supplying schools with the resources needed to educate students, CPS has taken the “cut-and-run” approach, closing neighborhood schools in the poorest areas of the city and adding instability to already-unstable childhoods. CPS claims declining enrollment and “underutilization” as the reason for these closures (despite opening new charter schools in the same areas), but the district’s strategy would significantly reduce the likelihood of any future reinvestment or repopulating in the communities affected by school closure. If there is no local school to send their children, why would a family move to the area? If families are not moving into the area, why would businesses or the city spend money to beautify or provide new opportunities in the community? CPS is creating a vicious cycle of disinvestment and population suppression that severely limits the ability of African-American communities on the South and West Sides to reemerge as thriving neighborhoods. By closing neighborhood schools, CPS and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are declaring these communities dead zones that are unworthy of targeted investment.

By focusing on an oversimplification of the problems of resource allocation and “underutilization,” CPS is ignoring these complexities. During her March 21 interview on Chicago Tonight, Byrd-Bennett draws a disingenuous conclusion from the widespread anger about unevenly distributed academic resources and disinvestment in Chicago by promoting the idea that, since their neighborhood schools have been dangerously under-resourced by CPS, parents should applaud her plan to close these schools and happily transfer their children to a different building farther away from their home. It is this misguided solution to a self-inflicted problem that has truly angered these communities. This year, more than 20,000 people have attended hearings on potential school actions, and most of them vehemently oppose CPS’s plans.2 Thousands of parents, students, teachers, and community members also expressed outrage over the cut-and-run approach to education at the March 27,2013, Rally to Stop School Closings in Daley Plaza.3

Insert Photo: TaleofTwoSchools_Photo1.png
(Alt Description: The photo above shows protesters marching down LaSalle Street at the CTU Rally to stop school closings.)
Protesters marching down LaSalle Street at the CTU Rally to Stop School Closings- Photo by Rebecca Ritger

Research by the Chicago Teachers Union and other organizations has proven that in Chicago school closings are directed almost exclusively at predominately African-American neighborhoods.4 Eighty-eight percent of the students affected by school actions from 2001 to 2012 were African-American.5 Out of the 54 schools proposed for closure in 2013, 88 percent are African-American and only 125 of the 16,119 total students—0.78 percent—are white.6 Of the schools proposed for closure in 2013, 87 percent are “Apartheid schools,” a term coined by UCLA Civil Rights Project Co-Director Gary Orfield to indicate schools with student bodies that are 99 percent students of color.7

While these demographics are certainly important, they do not tell the whole story of school closings; there is a fundamental element of the school actions debate that lacks significant research and attention. While academic and community organizations have done significant research on the aggregate effect and prevalence of school closings, CPS has failed to conduct in depth “forensic” analyses of the closed schools themselves. At each school proposed for closing, consolidation, co-location or turnaround, there is a story, a story that involves real students, teachers, staff and administrators who are inextricably linked to their school. Schools are not just a building for students and staff; they are a second home. It is easy to lose the human element when analyzing complex data, but we cannot let these stories be forgotten when considering destabilizing school actions.

CPS has proposed an historic number of school closings in 2013. To contextualize these proposed actions, this report provides an autopsy of a school closed in 2012, Simon Guggenheim Elementary School, by analyzing the systemic obstacles to school improvement and the chaos that materialized after the school was announced for closure. This report also examines the school culture, resource deficiencies, and holistic improvements at Jacob Beidler Elementary School, a school that narrowly avoided school actions in 2013 after being proposed for consolidation two years prior. Both Guggenheim and Beidler faced two closure threats in only three years. Both survived the first, but while Beidler remains open, Guggenheim could not fight off CPS a second time.

This report uses testimony from teachers, staff, administrators and community leaders to provide a much-needed examination of the causes and effects of school actions at Guggenheim and the culture of fear created by closure threats at Beidler. Through these case studies, this report identifies the barriers to improvement that schools threatened with closure face, and examines how CPS addresses these difficulties. This report investigates the supports available at schools fearing closure and lists the additional resources that could help them succeed. These case studies also study the effectiveness of CPS transition plans and the value of community input at school actions hearings. Each element of these case studies is based on testimony or evidence from multiple sources.

Many of the holistic improvements at Beidler mirror the 5 Essential Supports (5Essentials). Based on more than 20 years of research, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) found that the 5Essentials consistently correlate with school improvement.8 The 5Essentials—Effective Leaders, Collaborative Teachers, Ambitious Instruction, Supportive Environment and Involved Families—provide a more comprehensive approach to school evaluation than simply using scores on standardized tests or “value-added” measures. Schools strong in the Effective Leaders support have principals that collaborate with teachers to formulate a coherent action plan. Teachers and administrators have a high level of mutual trust and respect, and work together to meet challenging goals. The Collaborative Teachers support evaluates the quality of professional development sessions, the level of commitment that staff has for the school and amount of trust and shared responsibilities between teachers at the school. Having Collaborative Teachers strengthens the Ambitious Instruction support; classroom lessons have clear, demanding goals that stress critical thinking and student discussion.

Students at schools with a Supportive Environment trust and respect their teachers, have multiple professional role models and feel safe and comfortable inside the building. Teachers focus on students’ individual needs, identifying those struggling to keep up with their peers while continuing to challenge students at the top of the class. Parents also benefit from the Supportive Environment, and, in schools strong in Involved Families, become active in their child’s education, feeling that they are partners for school improvement. These parents advocate for school resources and ensure that existing items and facilities in the area are well-kept. CCSR’s research shows that if a school is strong in three of these five supports, it is 10 times more likely to see significant improvement than a school that is weak in three or more supports.

While Beidler excels or is making significant progress on these 5Essentials, Guggenheim was denied the opportunity to develop these supports. After a thorough investigation of Guggenheim, this report concludes that CPS clearly did not provide teachers and staff with the necessary assistance to improve the school. In fact, they imposed policies that weakened all five of the Essential Supports. After beating the 2010 closing attempt, CPS restricted Guggenheim even more, creating serious barriers to the school’s proposed action plan. Then, two years and three CEOs years later, CPS came back to Guggenheim. This time, CPS completed the systematic destruction of Guggenheim, shuttering the school for good.