U. of Chicago Researchers Document Damage to Communities and Students from 2013 School Closures

Ever since Chicago closed 50 schools in May of 2013, we have listened to teachers worrying about the effects on the children who were transferred to so-called welcoming schools. And we have continued to hear laments from the community after neighborhood institutions were shuttered.

Corporate school reformers always claimed that school disruption would save us from the old 20th century status quo. Disruptive school turnarounds—fire the principal, fire half the teachers, charterize or privatize the school, close the school—were the final prescription in the No Child Left Behind Act as the supposed cure for low performance. They were also at the heart of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.

In Chicago, where a growing charter school sector has been actively competing with neighborhood schools, competition from privatized charters has exacerbated an already-declining school enrollment.  School closures in Chicago have been justified both as the way to reform struggling schools and as an efficiency—saving money by consolidating an ever smaller school district enrollment in fewer schools.

Until now, academic research about the implications of school closings has been negative, but very careful to avoid overstating its negative conclusions.  Last May the National Education Policy Center published a policy brief which declared: “The relatively limited evidence base suggests that school closures are not a promising strategy for remedying low student performance… School closures have at best weak and decidedly mixed benefits; at worst they have detrimental repercussions for students if districts do not ensure that seats at higher-performing schools are available for transfer students. In districts where such assignments are in short or uncertain supply, ‘closure and transfer’ is a decidedly undesirable option.”

But scathing new research last week now paints a much bleaker picture. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research released a new and sharply critical report five years after Chicago Public Schools’ massive 2013 school closures. The report condemns school closure (one of the prescriptions for disruptive turnaround) precisely because school closures in Chicago have proven so terribly disruptive for children teachers, and communities.

The Consortium describes Chicago Public Schools’ declared purpose for closing schools: “Although cost savings was the primary stated reason for closing schools, city and district officials saw this as an opportunity to move students into higher-rated schools and provide them with better academic opportunities. Underutilized schools, the district argued, were not serving students well.”

But what has happened over five years has not fulfilled district leaders’ expectations.  Instead we read about the destruction of trust and the fragile institutions of school and community: “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships, and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Students and staff appreciated the extra resources, technology, programs, and the expansion of Safe Passage, although they wished for longer-term investments because student needs did not end after one year. Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

While test scores dropped in the short term (and lagged for much longer in math) for students who were transferred to new schools and also for students already enrolled in welcoming schools, the academic impact was exacerbated by the unanticipated realities of the disruption. During the 2012-2013 school year, even as the District held hearings about pending school closures, more students than usual transferred out of the schools scheduled to become welcoming schools. These students seemingly transferred out to avoid what was scheduled to happen in their schools.

The magnitude of the disruption is reflected in the number of students and teachers who were affected: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.”

Consortium researchers conducted qualitative interviews with educators and students in six of the welcoming schools. They identify themes running through the responses from across the six schools.  First, “Planning for a merger of this magnitude was highly complex and involved a great deal of adaptation. School leaders said they did not know how to balance the need to plan with the recognition that the process, in reality, was unfolding with a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity.  Planning was also difficult because staff only had a few months and they did not always know how many of the closed school students would enroll in their schools, nor their final budgets.”  Remember that Chicago Public Schools allocates funding on a per-student basis.

While some welcoming schools were awarded STEM or International Baccalaureate programs—which have been sustained over the five years that have followed the school closures, “Many… initial supports… were hard to sustain after the first year… due to budget cuts in subsequent years and the end of the one-time influx of resources. An exception has been the expansion of a program that “hires Safe Passage workers to stand along designated walking routes during before-and after-school hours.” Everyone appreciates the addition of this program, which the school district has sustained.

What nobody in the school administration seems to have appreciated, however, is the social impact and emotional distress among students and educators in the schools which were closed, in the welcoming schools as well, and in the primarily African American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides, where most of the schools were closed: “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning… The intensity of the feelings of loss were amplified in cases where schools had been open for decades, with generations of families attending the same neighborhood school. Losing their closed schools was not easy and the majority of interviewees spoke about the difficulty they had integrating and socializing into the welcoming schools.”

The report continues: “Even though welcoming school staff and students did not lose their schools per se, many also expressed feelings of loss because incorporating a large number of new students required adjustments… Creating strong relationships and building trust in welcoming schools after schools closed was difficult. Prior to the actual merger, school communities said they felt as if they were competing with one another to stay open, which made accepting the loss that much more difficult. Displaced staff and students, who had just lost their schools, had to go into unfamiliar school environments and start anew. Welcoming school communities also did not want to lose or change the way their schools were previously.”

In a timely coincidence, the Partnership for the Future of Learning has released a nine-minute film, Kings and Queens, featuring Irene Robinson, a Chicago grandmother and activist, who describes, from the point of view of her family, the 2013 closure of their neighborhood school. Robinson describes the same grieving process that is documented by the U. of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s new report.  She tells of the loss of Overton Elementary School: what the school meant to three generations of her family—herself, her six children, her 18 grandchildren—and to her community. “We cooked there. We had holiday meals there with the children and the parents. We had GED classes in our school for the parents.”

Chicago Public Schools, a district suffering from declining enrollment overall, has exacerbated the decline of its neighborhood schools by permitting uncontrolled growth of charter schools which compete with the neighborhood schools for enrollment. And Chicago Public Schools has already begun the process of  closing several more neighborhood schools. WBEZ’s Sarah Karp reports on the reaction of Janice Jackson, Chicago Public Schools’ CEO, to the new report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research: “CPS’s current Schools Chief Janice Jackson called what happened ‘unacceptable.’ But said the outcome will not deter her from closing schools in the future. At the time of the closings in 2013, Jackson was principal of a West Side high school. ‘We acknowledge that it was imperfect,’ she said. ‘For me, I can focus on the learnings that came out of that.'”

Karp continues: “After taking a five-year break from school closings, the Chicago Board of Education voted in February to shutter one elementary school and four high schools. Jackson is allowing most current students to stay until they graduate and she is providing extra support for students before and after they graduate.”

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