Closing all those schools not a disaster after all

SHARE Closing all those schools not a disaster after all

Two students arrive for the last day of school at Kohn Elementary on June 19, 2013. Kohn was one of 50 Chicago Public Schools that were closed in 2013. | Sun-Times file photo

When City Hall in late 2012 proposed a wave of mass school closings, all in just one year, our reaction could be summed up in two words:

No way.


We carried that view into 2013, when CPS voted to 49 elementary schools, even as the mayor and the schools CEO insisted they could pull off the closings in way that wouldn’t hurt the nearly 12,000 affected children and would even make them academically better off.

We write today to offer credit where credit is due.

Some 93 percent of the students ended up at schools that were at least marginally higher performing than the under-enrolled shuttered schools they left, according to a University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research study released last week.

It is too early to tell if individual students actually are better off — and the odds aren’t great. Previous U. of C. research on prior closings found that students had better academic outcomes only if they moved to “substantially” higher-performing schools. After the 2013 closures, just 21 percent of students went to CPS’ top-rated schools.

But the big fear, grounded in CPS’ past bungled efforts, that students would be relegated to worse schools didn’t materialize, certainly not on a large scale. Some 66 percent of the displaced students ended up at designated “welcoming” schools, which were generally higher performing than the closed schools and also benefited, largely in the first year, from extra academic and social supports and capital improvements.

Outside the report, it’s worth noting other observations: the “Safe Passage” program to shepherd kids to their new schools generally seems to be working; some staff from many closed schools transferred with their students, easing the transition; and the logistics of the moves — records, furniture, etc.  — went fairly smoothly. Many deserve credit for this but it’s worth calling particular attention to CPS’ chief operating officer Tom Tyrrell, who just announced he is leaving CPS.

The verdict on the wisdom of the mass closings is still out, even if there’s no doubt that CPS had to close at least some dramatically under-enrolled schools.

It seems clear the closings will not yield big savings for CPS, given the big investments in welcoming schools, the cost of maintaining closed buildings (CPS now manages a total of 50 vacant buildings) and the new costs CPS has added in recent years with the opening of dozens of new charter schools. Whether this ultimately is a better way for CPS to spend its money is an open question.

It is also clear that the influx of new students from closed schools into top-performing welcoming schools has undercut progress at some of those welcoming schools, as the Sun-Times reported in a story last year.

Finally, the losses to the 49 affected communities, neighborhoods that already were struggling, are vast and immeasurable.

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