After 50 Chicago Public Schools were closed in 2013, the schools CEO counted only “seven” students as “lost.”
In an open letter she wrote to the Chicago Sun-Times in August, Barbara Byrd-Bennett emphasized the district’s apparent success by repeating the number three times: “Seven.” “Only seven.” “Seven students from a total of 11,729.”
“The full accounting for the fate of virtually every child affected by the decision to consolidate underutilized schools is not the only good news to emerge from our efforts — it is simply the latest,” Byrd-Bennett wrote, adding that the data had been verified by the Illinois State Board of Education.
But an analysis of enrollment data provided by Chicago Public Schools and state board, originally reported Tuesday by Catalyst Chicago, shows that Barbara Byrd-Bennett was wrong by a factor of 22.
At the time Byrd-Bennett’s letter was published, CPS could not account for 154 children whose schools were closed in June 2013, the Sun-Times has confirmed with officials.
Out of those 154, 39 have since re-enrolled in CPS schools for the 2014-15 school year, bringing the current total the district can’t locate to 115, according to district spokesman Bill McCaffrey. He blamed a coding error, which he says has since been corrected, for the discrepancy.
The gaping difference, uncovered weeks before the mayoral election and only after months of public records requests by the local education monthly, raised questions about the credibility of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed CEO into question.
“It’s outrageous that they would concoct a story and put it out there to fuel this narrative of success on the closings,” said Wendy Katten of the parent group Raise Your Hand, which opposed the closings. “Would the actual number have been so surprising? No. But the lying and the misrepresenting the truth is what’s so unbelievably offensive.”
Byrd-Bennett ignored questions about her credibility and her motivation in writing the letter to the Sun-Times, which did not appear to respond to any particular news event or announcement.
Instead, McCaffrey pointed to a recent report on the closings by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research as proof of a successful transition.
“While CPS worked with the state to identify public school enrollment, tracking the placement of students who enroll at a private school or schools out of state poses challenges. Despite our efforts, families of 115 out of 11,729 students chose not to report where their student was enrolling,” McCaffrey wrote in an email.
He added that the district “takes the accuracy of its statements and the integrity of its data very seriously,” and “took the unprecedented step of requesting data from ISBE in an effort to be transparent and open, as well as complete another step in our process to ensure students enrolled in a school.”
Last March, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis questioned what happened to the 800 children who, the data show, left the district.
In June, the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force released a damning report that questioned why CPS “cannot account for the hundreds of children who did not re-enroll in the district or show up for school” despite spending $263 million on the closing process.
CPS asked the state board to run unique identification codes to see whether 871 students who left the district enrolled in other Illinois public schools, documents show. The board complied, but the state agency does not track students in other states or in private schools.
That left CPS with 434 students who had left as of August; 279 of them were coded as transfers, McCaffrey said. District analysts had erred when they counted only students without a location code, he said, rather any code indicating students left CPS.