Chicago provided the model for school “reform” as we now experience it in America. A decade ago Arne Duncan, then C.E.O. of the Chicago Public Schools, launched Renaissance 2010, whose purpose was to expand school choice by opening 100 new schools by 2010, many of them charter schools, and closing so-called “failing” public schools. New Schools for Chicago, a supporter of Ren10, as it was called, provides this puff-piece history: “In June 2004, Mayor Richard M. Daley, then Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Arne Duncan, and leaders from the Chicago business community announced Renaissance 2010 (Ren10). The goal of this bold initiative was to open 100 new schools and provide all students, regardless of socioeconomic background, with the opportunity to compete on the global playing field. The Renaissance Schools Fund (RSF) was established by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club as the fundraising and strategic partner to the Renaissance 2010 effort.”
When Barack Obama became President of the United States in the fall of 2008, he brought Arne Duncan with him to Washington, D.C. as the Secretary of Education, and along came Ren10 as the school “reform” template that would be rolled-out nationwide in programs like Race to the Top and the school “turnaround” models in School Improvement Grants.
In Chicago, Ren10 was launched in June of 2004—ten years ago. So how’s it going back where it all began? Not so well — according to new reports and commentaries by those charged with educating Chicago’s children.
Yesterday, May 22, on the first anniversary of Chicago’s vote “to close 50, ‘turn around’ five, and co-locate 17 elementary schools” the Chicago Teachers Union released a report, Twelve Months Later: The Impact of School Closings in Chicago. The report was produced by the Chicago Teachers Union Research Department which conducted interviews with “teachers from seven of the receiving schools, Chopin, Courtenay, Dett, Earle, Nicholson, Otis, and South Shore Fine Arts — to gather information about the fulfillment of CPS promises. Additionally, researchers reviewed CPS material on the school closures, operating and capital budget documents, position files, vacancy reports, class size data, and other public data.” Chicago’s mass closure of 50 schools in one year was the largest closure of schools and reassignment of students ever to take place in the United States.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) reports that although the school closures were promised to save money that could then be directed to support the needs of children in receiving schools, neither have such economies been realized nor the investments in student support been accomplished. Many teaching positions at receiving schools remain unstaffed, with especially serious consequences in schools that received a significant influx of students needing special education. “The duration of the special education vacancies were longer than for all teacher types, and were also substantially longer at receiving schools than others.” At Brenneman Elementary School the number of special education students doubled, raising the ratio of social workers to students to an unmanageable level—from 125:1 a year ago to 180:1 today. CTU concludes: “Instead of going directly to receiving schools, a large portion of the transition budgets allocated through central office went to management costs, such as logistics, human resources, building monitoring, and safe passage programs implemented to address safety concerns.” A contractor hired to manage moving logistics won the job in April of 2013 with a bid of $14,200,000.00. By December of 2013, the actual cost to the district had jumped to $30,900,000.00.
Also promised were enrichments at the receiving schools such as science labs, new libraries, computer labs and i-pads for the students. However, “Courtenay is currently without a science teacher and the science lab at Dett is being used as a fourth grade classroom… Even at the receiving schools with brand new libraries — Leland, McCutcheon, Harvard, and Bass — only Leland has a librarian on staff. Libraries without librarians are used for other purposes. For example, teachers reported them used for special education classes at Chopin and recess rooms at Earle. Computer labs at receiving schools were upgraded; however, only one fifth of these schools has a technology teacher on staff this year… At Drake, $100,000.00 worth of iPads were stolen over the weekend preceding the first day of school. None of the teachers interviewed have seen technology working smoothly in their buildings.”
While the rationale presented for massive school closure was under-utilization of the schools that were closed, CTU reports that much of the space lost in closed buildings had been used for enrichments and community services. Of the schools closed, 90 percent were majority black; 71 percent of closed schools had a majority black teaching staff. “Just 2% of schools with a minority Black student population were closed.” “25% of all CPS schools with both majority Black students and staff were closed.” One result of closing schools to address supposed under-utilization has become overcrowding at receiving schools. Today, to address overcrowding, “More charter schools are opening, despite evidence that their students perform no better than students at CPS-run schools. More money is being spent for selective enrollment schools, attended disproportionately by White students. Adequate supports for schools facing challenging circumstances are not forthcoming.”
In concert with the release of CTU’s scathing report have been stunning letters and op-eds published this month in Chicago by school principals who declare they can no longer remain silent. In a letter published May 9 in the Chicago Sun-Times, Troy La Raviere, principal at Blaine Elementary School, one of the city’s highest performing schools (as measured by standardized test scores), declared, “Since 2011, CPS principals and teachers have experienced unprecedented political burdens. Early on, teachers felt publicly maligned and disrespected by the mayor, leading to the historic strike of 2012. While publicly praising principals in speeches and with awards, behind the scenes this administration has disregarded principals’ knowledge and experience. They have ignored and even suppressed principals’ voices in order to push City Hall’s political agenda for Chicago’s schools.” “‘You are Board employees,’ a central office official told a room full of principals at a meeting, ‘and when you speak, your comments must be in line with the Board’s agenda.’ He instructed us to have an ‘elevator speech…'” “The world’s highest-performing school systems are built on the ideas of American education professionals ranging from John Dewey to Linda Dalrling-Hammond, ideas that recognize school improvement is not an individual race, but a team sport. Yet, our own elected officials have been ignoring those ideas in favor of teacher-bashing, privatized choice, fly-by-night fast-track teacher licensing and over-reliance on testing—ideas that have not improved schooling in any nation that has tried them.”
In a column published by Catalyst-Chicago on May 12, Adam Parrot-Sheffer, principal of Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School, wrote: “…the lack of principal and teacher voice in this dialogue—which my heroic colleague Troy LaRaviere has written about in a Chicago Sun-Times op ed—has turned promising ideas into harmful practice. When this is coupled with implementation so poor it borders on malpractice, it is time for significant changes in our approach… Unfortunately, when systems stop considering the humanity of those working within them, employees with power in turn begin to disregard those working with them within the system. I have lost count of the number of times I have watched my colleagues and myself be disrespected in meetings or emails. I have sat through lengthy budget rollout meetings where principals were spoken to with empty platitudes about how they are the ‘levers of change’…. When administrators have raised their concerns in these meetings, such as what to do when we see lunchroom employees in tears from being overworked as the district cut school positions by 33% to 50%, there is no response… We are in the business of developing people, but these days, there is a lack of development and support for those doing that work.”