Study: CPS 2013 closings didn’t keep promises of better academic opportunities

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Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson (pictured on March 13) has vowed that Chicago won’t see 2013-style mass school closings on her watch, but won’t rule out closings either. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Chicago school leaders promised better academic opportunities when they closed 50 schools in 2013, but the affected students saw test scores drop, according to a new report card on the school system.

That’s the key finding of a report the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research is releasing Tuesday — weeks before the city’s five-year moratorium on school closings expires.

“Academic outcomes were neutral at best and negative in some instances,” according to the 88-page report.

The 50 school closings were a record for the Chicago Public Schools and affected nearly 12,000 students. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s top school officials said at the time that too few students were going to those schools for CPS to be able to provide a quality education for them, as CPS was facing a $1 billion budget shortfall.

Despite the promised improvement in academic opportunities for students from the schools that were closed, the University of Chicago researchers found that their test scores fell in the wake of the closings and subsequent school mergers.

And they said the drop in math scores lasted for four years.

The researchers also said their interviews with CPS staff members revealed a “chaotic” plan for moving the students to other schools and too little support for blending the new and old communities of students and families, creating “challenging us-vs.-them dynamics.”

Unlike past closures, the affected schools saw no changes right after the closings in attendance or in mobility, which is how a school measures how many children transfer in and out. However, some schools saw an uptick in transfers out just before the closings were approved.

The report is the latest analysis on school closings by the consortium, which looked at standardized test scores, GPA, and other key data points across CPS from 2008 through 2017, and interviewed students and staffers from six schools designated as “welcoming schools.” Researchers would not say which schools they studied, only that all six were on the South and West Sides, where the bulk of the closings took place in African-American neighborhoods.

And Chicago isn’t the only city to close schools in the face of money challenges.

“By looking at the effects and talking to people in the schools and the students that were affected, we are really learning about what some of the policy implications are,” researcher Marisa de la Torre said, “and going forward, there are some implications that could really help the transition in these places so hopefully, things are in place, the transition is easier for the students and the staff.”

CPS CEO Janice Jackson has vowed that Chicago won’t see 2013-style mass school closings on her watch, but won’t rule out closings either. Right after taking office, she backed plans to close four shrinking majority black high schools in Englewood in exchange for a new high school and to close a high-performing black elementary school in the South Loop so its building can be transformed into another high school.

She said CPS has learned from its past closures, giving communities more time than in 2013 to voice their concerns, which has led to more detailed transition plans for staff and students.

“There are some things that are already in place that show that we’re moving in a better direction and I plan to handle this stuff with a great degree of respect for the community and high levels of engagement,” she said.

But Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union said the report “validates” that the closures” were marred by chaos, a desperate lack of resources, lost libraries and labs, grief, trauma, damaging disruption, and a profound disrespect for the needs of low-income black students and the educators who teach them.”

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