A new University of Illinois report shows that last year’s round of 50 Chicago public school closings has had a negative impact on both parents and students. Progress Illinois takes a closer look at the report’s findings.
A new study by education researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) shows public school closings in the city have had a negative impact on students as well as parents who “played many important and varied roles in their closed schools”and now “feel excluded from new schools.”
The Chicago Board of Education’s decision last year to close a record number of neighborhood schools in the face of fierce public opposition meant a “great loss” to students, communities and parents, the majority of whom believe their voices were not heard throughout the school-closing process, according to the report issued by UIC’s Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education.
The new report, “Root Shock: Parents’ Perspectives on School Closings in Chicago,” is intended to “give school closings a human face.” Its findings and recommendations are based on interviews with 23 CPS parents from the West, South and Near West sides that were affected by last year’s school actions.
In May of 2013, the mayoral-appointed Chicago Board of Education voted to shut down 50 “underutilized” schools, mostly located on the city’s West and South sides, which represented the largest single round of school closures in the nation’s history. In addition to the school closings, the school board also agreed in May of last year to turnaround five schools and co-locate 11 elementary schools.
Since 2001, more than 150 public schools in Chicago have been closed, turned around, phased out or consolidated primarily in low-income African-American and Latino communities, according to the report. At the same time, CPS has continued to expand and fund charter schools, which are independently run but receive public money.
“We really have to understand that these kinds of school decisions affect people’s lives and their communities in profound ways,” said one of the report’s authors, Pauline Lipman, professor of educational policy studies and director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education. “We have to stop thinking about (school actions) as decisions that can be made based on test scores and numbers about enrollment to capacity ratios. We need to think about the human beings and the lives and the ideas and the deep understanding … that parents have about their schools and what those schools mean to their communities.”
For the report, education researchers interviewed 21 parents from a closed school, one parent from a turnaround school and another parent from one of CPS’ 49 designated welcoming schools, which took in students displaced by the latest round of school closures. All but three of the 21 parents from closed schools enrolled their children in CPS’ official welcoming schools. The report, which also draws from publicly available data and testimony made at public hearings, does not name the parents or identify specific schools for privacy purposes.
The report highlights the strong involvement CPS parents had in their closed schools. For example, parents interviewed for the report helped run after school athletic programs and other activities, served as liaisons between the school and student families, led school fundraising efforts and participated in Local School Councils (LSCs).
A parent quoted in the report said, “We did so much stuff in this school, for this school. That is what made the school uplifted … Whatever they needed. If they needed me to walk kids home, I walked kids home. If they needed someone to sit at the front desk, I would sit at the front desk. Whatever they needed … It was something I wanted to do for the community … that is my way of giving back.”
Lipman called parental involvement at schools “a two-way street.” That’s because schools and parents alike “benefit tremendously from this involvement.”
“These are parents who found great meaning and great value in the work that they did,” she said.
The testimony from parents illustrates that “schools are not simply brick and mortar institutions that sit in a community and can be interchangeable, but that they’re kind of a permeable membrane between the school and the community,” Lipman said. “The school is not only embedded in the community, but community people are embedded in the school.”
Several parents, however, said parental involvement and access is now limited in their new schools.
“Some parents said that they are no longer able to volunteer or participate in their receiving schools; others do not get information about school events or meetings; still others feel unwelcome,” the report reads. “For some parents, the exclusion was physical — they were no longer allowed to volunteer in their children’s classrooms or schools and did not have the same access to teachers and administrators as they had in the school that was closed. Many parents mentioned that they no longer were allowed to speak to teachers or administrators without an appointment.”
Dwayne Truss, West Side education activist with the Raise Your Hand Education coalition, said he has heard similar concerns from parents whose children previously attended one of the 50 closed schools.
He cited one example involving parents at Victor Herbert Elementary School on the Near West Side, saying access to their children’s school became restricted after it closed into nearby Robert Nathaniel Dett Elementary School.
“You would have hoped there would have been some spirit of cooperation … but the opportunities to bring everyone together to work together, it just didn’t happen,” Truss said of the school merger.
Upset by the lack of parental access at their new school, several Herbert parents ran in Dett’s April 2014 Local School Council election and unseated Dett parents on the council, Truss said.
Although the LSC election did provide Herbert parents an opportunity to get involved at Dett, it should not have been the primary way for “parents to participate in their child’s school,” Truss said.
A CPS spokesperson was not immediately available for comment in response to the report.
Educational Opportunities At Welcoming Schools
Among other findings, the interviews also revealed that “parents believe school closings had a negative impact on their children, and most believe their new schools are not better.” Just three of the parents in the report say they believe their children now have “better educational opportunities” in their new schools.
CPS’ reasoning behind closing 50 schools was to address underutilization and save the cash-strapped school district money. The school closings, CPS officials said, would also allow the district to concentrate resources on the welcoming schools in an effort to provide students with better learning opportunities. For example, CPS said welcoming schools would get a library, upgraded computer and science labs, and iPads for students in 3rd through 8th grades, among other facility and capital improvements.
“It’s ironic that a school district that is not providing equitable resources to all children would then argue that’s a reason to close schools, because that’s actually an indictment of the school district itself,” Lipman noted. “Nonetheless, CPS promised to provide more resources, and indeed after the school year began this year, [CPS CEO] Barbara Byrd-Bennett hailed the school closings as a positive thing because children were getting more resources.”
However, Lipman pointed out that the “vast majority of children were not assigned to schools that were significantly better than the schools that they left.”
Researchers learned from parents that the receiving schools were overcrowded during the 2013-2014 academic year, there was regular confusion about Individualized Education Programs (IEP) for students with special needs and many of the arts and music programs students had at their old schools were no longer available, Lipman said. Additionally, most of the programs brought to the old schools through community partnerships were lost after the schools were shuttered, she explained.
“Some of the resources that were in a new school, (students) already had in the old school, and some resources that were promised, like iPads, had not arrived, for example,” Lipman added.
One parent said her child previously took part in various after school programs at her old school, including a music class that is not offered at the new school.
“How do you take all that when she was doing good,” the parent said. “She was even passing the test scores. So how do you tell me taking her music is better quality education?”
Parents directly impacted by last year’s school actions also spoke about their children’s enduring “sense of loss and disconnection” from their school, teachers and academics, Lipman said.
“Children still feel traumatized by the school closing,” she explained. “Some parents that we talked to, it was really quite disturbing. Parents talked about how their children every single day say, ‘I hate school. I don’t want to go to school. Why can’t I go back to my old school?’ … The children have experienced a persistent sense of pain and loss as a result of this, as have the parents, who were not only very involved in their old schools but a number of them talked about how they are now excluded from their new school.”
The report also argues that CPS officials and the Chicago Board of Education “did not listen to parents and did not respect their knowledge of their schools” during the school-closing process.
“The report confirms what we already heard throughout the process, which is that parents felt excluded from the entire decision-making process and from the decisions that CPS makes in general,” Lipman said.
Parents are a “great resource of knowledge, experience and expertise that could contribute to the decisions that are made in CPS and to policies to improve schools,” Lipman said, adding that many parents have a “holistic view of education.”
“What they want is more than high test scores,” Lipman said. “They want a rich, holistic environment in which children have access to art, music, sports programs and in which children can learn to think … and they talked about ethical and moral issues. They want a school where their child is treated as if she is somebody, where every child is treated with respect.”
Among other recommendations, the report states that “CPS needs democracy in decision-making.”
“No school actions should be taken without approval of the elected school decision-making body comprised of parents, community, teachers and school staff — the Local School Council,” the report reads.
The authors also called for an elected school board as well as a moratorium on school closings, charter school expansion and other “disruptive school actions.”
Truss stressed that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel “controls the schools, and he doesn’t want parents to have a voice.”
“Obviously if he listened to testimony of thousands upon thousands of parents, yeah you wouldn’t have this rapid expansion of charter schools, you wouldn’t have these school closings,” he noted. “But the [mayor’s] goal is to carry out this corporate school reform, and that means that democracy dies … Right now he’s not trying to empower parents by hearing their voices.”
Truss said he hopes the new report reenergizes parents and other education activists to continue their fight against “corporate school reform.”
Many people are with that fight, Truss said, “It’s just a matter of can we keep this thing going until the elections to change this?”