In 2013, when a historic number of Chicago Public Schools were closed, the district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett promised that every child whose school had been shuttered would end up in a better place.
In March, Byrd-Bennett said that promise had been kept, and that students affected by the closings had performed and behaved slightly better than those who weren’t during the first half of the school year.
But newly released state data show the so-called “welcoming schools,” where children were sent after 50 of their neighborhood schools were permanently closed in June 2013, turned out to be, at best, a mixed bag.
Some of the city’s largest drops in Illinois State Achievement Test scores happened at some of these “welcoming schools.” The two sharpest falls occurred at Chopin Elementary School, 2450 W Rice St., in Humboldt Park, and at Gregory Elementary School, 3715 W Polk St., in the East Garfield Park neighborhood. And six of the eight elementary schools that fell the farthest in the Sun-Times rankings also took in children from closed schools.
Some of the 50 receiving schools saw jumps, too, though.
Students at a school are scored by looking at how many Illinois students scored below them, on average, on the ISAT.
In 2013, for example, students at Burnham Elementary Inclusive Academy, in South Deering, did better on the ISAT than 45 percent of Illinois students. But last year, they scored better than only 25 percent of Illinois students, on average.
Faraday Elementary School in East Garfield Park also fell by that measurement, from 51 percent to 38 percent. Mays Elementary Academy’s students in Englewood outperformed 41 percent of state public schoolchildren in 2013 but fell to 28 percent in 2014. Brennemann Elementary School in Uptown slid from 58 percent to 51 percent.
Even Cather Elementary School in East Garfield Park, which had solidly held CPS’ top rating before the closures, slid a little; its students had outperformed 45 percent of the state in 2013 and 43 percent in 2014.
Chopin’s tiny population of about 260 more than doubled, thanks to children added from the closed Lafayette Elementary School nearby. The school also got a new leader right before reopening, said Frederick Williams, who was named as Chopin’s principal in July 2013.
Things also were tough for Courtenay Elementary Language Arts Center and Stockton Elementary School. While Stockton ceased to exist in name, its building at 4420 N. Beacon St. in the Uptown neighborhood stayed open, took on the Courtenay name and staff and the student populations were merged.
The results were stark. Courtenay had a selective program and CPS’ top rating in 2013, with its students outperforming 57 percent of the state. The score of the merged school, now operating as open enrollment, fell to 40 percent in 2014. Stockton in 2013 was an open-enrollment school and had CPS’ lowest ranking.
CPS “ended up taking two really strong communities and ended up almost losing both,” said Pete Winninger, who was on the Local School Council at Courtenay last year but moved his son to another school for 6th grade this year after his friends and favorite teacher left the school.
The merger was especially rough since the Courtenay school community learned late in the closing process that it was taking in new children. Many parents ended up leaving, he said.
He praised Stockton’s teachers but said the school’s children had a lot of catching up to do, and could hardly be expected to close the gap in a single year.
“Courtenay was a rigorously academic school and we had to make sure we could get everyone on the same page academically,” he said. “My gut reaction to that news is, I’m not surprised.”
Asked what CPS was doing to help the receiving schools that struggled, CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey failed to give a direct answer. He emailed a statement that echoed Byrd-Bennett’s assertion from March, saying the district “continues to work to offer all students a high-quality education.” He included no specifics about ongoing efforts and did not acknowledge any of the problems in some receiving schools.
Some receiving schools with strong programs already in place made great gains with their new students.
Edward “Duke” Ellington Elementary School, 243 N. Parkside Ave., was among several that remained strong. The Austin school that had CPS’ highest rating at the time of the closures continued to see gains in its children’s test scores after blending students from Francis Scott Key and Robert Emmet elementary schools. Ellington students had outperformed 35 percent of students statewide in 2013 but 49 percent in 2014.
So did Otis Elementary School in West Town, which jumped from performing better than 33 percent of students statewide to 50 percent. Castellanos Elementary School in South Lawndale increased from 30 percent to 41 percent. Charles Evans Hughes Elementary School in North Lawndale rose from 31 percent to 38 percent. Langston Hughes Elementary School in Roseland went from 22 percent in 2013 to about 28 percent in 2014. And Hefferan Elementary School in West Garfield Park grew from outperforming 45 percent to 59 percent.
LaMeko Young, mother of a fifth-grader at Ellington, said she credits a fast merger of the three communities into one blended school.
The principal “took a student from each school and paired them up with her students, saying ‘if that kid is struggling with anything, if you’re weak here, you have to help each other.’
“Even those students who merged in did well. Some of those students had really improved. We had some students they were saying who went from D’s and C’s to A-B students. It was great,” Young said. “I’m kind of like glad that they did it because it opened up a lot of other doors for those other kids.”
Her son, Keairra Young, didn’t want to leave his school. In fact, he’s been asking his principal to add on high school grades so he can stay longer.
Keairra said he’s encouraged at Ellington to read a lot — he’s been reading a book lately about how predators catch their prey — and his teacher reads aloud to the class around lunch and recess time.
His new friends seem happy, too.
“It’s a good thing because they get to learn better,” Kiarra said, “and their grades can get up.”