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CPS chief calls in Marine – Tom Tyrell – to help in school closings

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is so concerned about the transfer of students in the upcoming school closing process she’s leaning on a retired Marine colonel who once quietly sorted out a prisoner exchange in the wake of war in Kosovo to figure it out.

Some in Chicago might point to warring factions in this battle over public schools. And gang borders likely will be crossed when children from schools to be closed are sent elsewhere. And all must be decided and carried out in the months leading up to Aug. 26, the first day of school.

“I’m not saying it looks similar to now, but there was great distrust to the process on both sides but there was a lot of chaos and stress,” Tom Tyrrell said in an exclusive interview Tuesday with the Chicago Sun-Times in which he and Byrd-Bennett laid out plans they have so far to transition children into new schools. What is similar, he continued: “It requires you to plow through the noise and get the planning done and get it done in detail and then be flexible enough to adapt as the plan unfolds.”

Tyrrell and Byrd-Bennett are promising that by the first day of school, a mere seven months away — all students attending welcoming schools will experience a safe and seamless transition and have an opportunity at a fresh start.”

Any supports a CPS student now has will follow him or her to a new school. And kids will be tracked through the new school, Tyrrell said. The district is setting up a website and hotline, and will host a fair for parents to learn about their options and events to help merge families, staff and students in new school communities, he said.

“This is our highest priority. If we do one thing right this year, we’re going to do the transition right,” Tyrrell said in Byrd-Bennett’s office. “What ‘transition right’ means is that we take care of the students and that we mitigate any negative impact on their participation in this.”

Absent still from the plan are many key details, the greatest of which is how many schools will be closed. Also unknown is whether students from a closed school will be sent to one or more “welcoming” schools that will receive them.

Byrd-Bennett wouldn’t speculate on a number or even a range of schools to shutter until the community hearings are concluded. She’ll release an interim list of schools Feb. 13 that could be targeted after her guidelines eliminate safe schools.

A Sun-Times analysis finds that 193 schools remain up for grabs after taking off the table the schools that Byrd-Bennett has declared safe, including high schools and high performing schools.

Sources close to her commission told the Sun-Times Monday they’ll recommend that she shutter no more than 20 schools so parents, teachers and bureaucrats will have an opportunity to adjust to the upheaval.

“They haven’t demonstrated to us that they can close 100 or even 50 schools. They don’t have the expertise to accomplish that in such a short time frame. When they closed down as many as 12 schools, it was a disaster,” said a source close to the commission.

The commission source noted that there is “no urgency” to close 100 schools at once, since the long-awaited consolidation would save money over time, not immediately. CPS estimated each closed school would save $500,000 to $800,000. The district insists it must close schools that are under capacity not only to deal with a budget hole but to be able to redirect money paying for things like school building repairs.

CPS insists it can handle as many closings as needed.

“We can do a lot more than we need to do or want to do,” Tyrell, 59, said.

He’s overseeing a team of about 40 CPS staffers dedicated to planning the transition process as best they can without knowing which schools will close.

He’ll also hire, for each school set to receive new kids from closed schools, a retired principal to serve as a “principal transition coordinator”.

By March 31, when Byrd-Bennett presents her list to the state, Tyrrell wants to have a base plan in place that can be adapted to the affected schools.

It’ll include assigning students in welcoming schools as student guides, hosting joint LSC meetings and giving principals a choice of supports among counselors, academic tutors and instructional coaches.

“We can do this,” Byrd-Bennett said Tuesday. “I’ve done it before with far less.”

Byrd-Bennett has closed schools before in several other urban districts, most recently 30 schools in Detroit.

She also closed 20-some in Cleveland and another 21 while consulting in Pittsburgh.

The Chicago Teachers Union argues that Chicago has a different set of problems, including incredible violence.

“She’s not a Chicagoan,” said Jackson Potter, staff coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union. “She doesn’t understand these things.”