Chicago Organizes to Confront Portfolio School Reform, Stop School Closures and Disruption

Consider the following description, from The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance, a 2016 policy brief from the Network for Public Education, of a school governance practice known as “portfolio school reform.” While you are reading about this school governance practice, think about the city school districts you may know where portfolio school reform is the operational theory—maybe Chicago, or Washington, D.C., or Cleveland, or Detroit, or Indianapolis, or Nashville, or Denver, or Los Angeles.

“As policy makers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policymakers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty. Moreover, districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding.  The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student, while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less. This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed. In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty as a vital companion to school reform.  But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts. Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio districts,’ and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack. These districts are often run by a governor or mayoral-appointed authority, with locally elected board members stripped of power.”

The brief continues—presenting the definition of “portfolio school reform”: “The operational theory behind portfolio districts is based on a stock market metaphor—the stock portfolio under the control of a portfolio manager. If a stock is low-performing, the manager sells it. As a practical matter, this means either closing the school or turning it over to a charter school or other management organization. Then reopened, the building is generally reconstituted, in terms of teachers, curriculum and administration. In theory, this process of closing, re-bidding, and reconstituting continues until the school and the entire portfolio is high-performing.  These approaches have been described (positively) as ‘creative destruction’ or (negatively) as ‘churn.'” “CRPE (the Center on Reinventing Public Education which originated portfolio school reform theory and which promotes portfolio school reform) adds pupil-based funding, more flexible use of human capital, and capacity building.”  “Rhetorically, advocates of this reform describe a shift from a ‘school system’ into a ‘system of schools.’ Importantly this approach does not confront nor attempt to remedy policies creating and sustaining concentrated poverty or those perpetuating a racist system of de facto segregation. Therefore, urban districts themselves are characterized as ‘failing.'”

The Chicago Public Schools is one of the largest districts listed by CRPE in its network of portfolio school districts, and Chicago epitomizes management through churn—the opening and closing of so-called failing schools, in addition to the schools that the district judges under-enrolled.  Under-enrollment quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in a district like Chicago, however, where per-pupil funding and the rapid opening of new charter schools means that as children leave to try out school choice, they carry their funding away from a school which soon is designated as “under-enrolled.”

Chicago closed 50 elementary schools in 2013 and established a self-imposed five-year moratorium on closing any more. But according to Sarah Karp of WBEZ, “the district has contributed to its capacity problems by greenlighting new schools in recent years. Since 2013, a total of 39 new schools serving 16,000 students have opened, and 29 of them serve high school students. This includes several new charter high schools and 15 alternative high schools for dropouts. Those alternative schools are mostly in neighborhoods with the most severely under-enrolled high schools… When CPS closed 50 schools in 2013, high schools were spared amid fears that consolidations could spur violence among students forced to cross gang lines. High schools, then, are among the most underutilized today. Seventeen have fewer than 270 students.”

Now that Chicago’s five-year moratorium on school closures has ended, Chicago Public Schools just announced another round of closures. And like the 2013 closures, the new reorganization plan will primarily affect schools serving the city’s African American neighborhoods. Here is Juan Perez, Jr. for the Chicago Tribune describing CPS’s plan for the upcoming round of school closings and consolidations in 2018: “(F)our South Side schools would close over the summer and the district would send hundreds of displaced students to surrounding schools. One building would be demolished to make way for a new high school, and privately operated charter schools would take over two other sites… Students at two predominantly African American elementary schools near downtown would merge with more diverse campuses.  One of those buildings, in the growing South Loop area, would gradually convert into a new high school.  In addition, Hirsch, one of the city’s lowest-enrolled high schools, would share space for a privately run charter school program that’s backed by a local megachurch and a foundation headed by hip-hop artist Common.”

This plan presents some troubling features and lots of conflicts for the parents and students who will be affected. Several South Side high schools will be eliminated, but the plan is to open a brand new high school in 2019 that will serve the affected neighborhoods. The catch is that the current students will be displaced someplace else while all this is happening.

And one of the schools that will cease operation in its current form, a very highly rated elementary school, the National Teachers Academy will be reconstituted as a high school. Again Sarah Karp reports: “Chicago Public Schools leaders want to convert the school, the highly-rated National Teachers Academy elementary school, which serves primarily low-income, black students, into a high school to serve the South Loop and parts of Chinatown, Bronzeville, and Bridgeport. CPS argued the new, non-selective neighborhood high school could be among the city’s most diverse.” Karp cites a new research report that concludes: “a plan to close a Near South Side elementary school will disproportionately harm poor, black children… Among the critics is a two-year-old group called Chicago United for Equity. They undertook the study, which analyzed whether the conversion would have a disparate impact on any one student group.”

Last week parents and students from schools slated for closure or consolidation staged a protest in front of the private school, the University of Chicago Lab School, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s children are enrolled. Hyde Park Herald reporter Tonia Hill summarizes the demands made by families who will be affected: “Parents, students, and advocates are demanding that each school, Team Englewood Community Academy, John Hope College Prep High School, Paul Robeson High School, Harper High School, Hirsch Metropolitan High School and the National Teacher’s Academy, be sustainable community schools… The group is also demanding that CPS allocate funds to advertise their neighborhood schools to middle school age students and their parents.  Most important the group wants to ensure that no student is displaced from the Englewood community.”

Empty Schools: Empty Promises, a stunning, December 2017, report by Kalyn Belsha for the Chicago Reporter tracks “thousands of black students leave(ing) Chicago for other segregated districts.”  Belsha describes families who feel pushed out of Chicago, a  city that has come to feel unwelcoming: “Chicago was once a major destination for African-Americans during the Great Migration, but experts say today the city is pushing out poor black families. In less than two decades, Chicago lost one-quarter of its black population, or more than 250,000 people. In the past decade, Chicago’s public schools lost more than 52,000 black students. Now, the school district which was majority black for half a century, is on pace to become majority Latino. Black neighborhoods like Austin have experienced some of the steepest student declines and most of the school closures and budget cuts… (S)ome academics blame city officials for making it harder for poor African-Americans, in particular, to live in Chicago: They closed neighborhood schools and mental health clinics; failed to rebuild public housing, dispersing thousands of poor black families across the region, and inadequately responded to gun violence, unemployment and foreclosures in black communities. ‘It’s a menu of disinvestment’ says Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who teaches African-American history at the University of Illinois Chicago. ‘The message that public policy sends to black families in the city is we’re not going to take care of you and if you just keep going away, that’s OK.'”

Many believe the opening and closing of public schools and the resulting neighborhood disruption is driving away families who simply seek stability for their children. If test scores and funding were the only factors being considered, Belsha describes research showing that parents might be better off staying in Chicago: “The Reporter looked at the 50 Illinois school districts most impacted by transfers from Chicago’s predominantly poor, black schools. Most districts were among the worst-funded in the state and have been shortchanged even more than CPS… High-poverty districts in northwest Indiana that took in many CPS transfers have also seen their budgets slashed in recent years….”

Stability is the bottom line for many families who want their children to be enrolled in schools near home, to be able to develop a community of peers and to know the teachers.

It is hard to sift out all the variables in Chicago. But one factor that may be contributing to decisions being made by portfolio school managers in the Chicago Public Schools is quietly mentioned. It’s never proven in the studies but it remains a lingering question. On Chicago’s South Side today, isn’t one factor implicated in these recently announced closures and reconfigurations really gentrification?

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