Chicago schools, students cope with closings
CHICAGO – Devion Allen peers wistfully through a door window at the school he used to attend. Those who live outside his gritty, violence-plagued neighborhood might dismiss this towering brick building as just another failing urban school. But to the eighth grader, the school across the street from his mom's subsidized apartment was a haven – "like a family," he says.
To the administrators of Chicago Public Schools, though, the neighborhood school was underutilized and underperforming – one of 47 public schools that closed in the city in June, most of them in high-poverty neighborhoods with mostly minority populations. Two more will be phased out by the end of the school year.
Allen left his school for the last time last summer, holding back tears as chaos and protests ensued. From that point on, the school, formerly known as Lafayette Elementary, became a symbol in a citywide and even national debate about the future course of public education.
Soon, officials say, the empty building will likely house an arts high school operated as a contract school, publicly funded but privately run.
"It's not fair," Allen said. He and many of his friends, meanwhile, have been shifted to a school about a half mile away, one that is smaller than their old school and jammed with twice as many students as it had last school year.
Officials have dubbed it a "welcoming school," the name given to the Chicago schools that have taken in students from closed buildings.
The idea was to send displaced students to schools with better test scores, combining forces to give them a better shot at a good education.
That appears to be happening at some of the combined schools, where those involved say they're making the best of a challenging situation.
"It's going to be OK. It's going to be OK," grandparent Dexter Leggin tells students and parents when he works at an after-school program at Melody Elementary, a welcoming school on the city's West Side.
To lighten the mood and promote unity, he's taken to calling the school "Melano" – a combination of Melody and Delano Elementary, the closed school. In this instance, the school took the Melody name because it was the higher-performing school, but kept the Delano building because it was a better fit. Leggin says that arrangement has helped.
Overall, Chicago Public Schools officials say the transition has been going smoothly and insist that, as they'd hoped, most students are in a better situation than they were before.
"We've kept that promise," said Denise Little, who leads the team that oversees the district's principals.
Some teachers and parents at welcoming schools, however, tell a very different story. They complain that overcrowding and an overall lack of support is making the transition rough.
The Chopin School, where Allen attends, is so packed that the staff there has had to give up the very amenities this transition was supposed to provide – the computer lab, the library and art and music rooms. The school's psychologist, occupational therapist and speech pathologist also are working in windowless, unvented spaces that were formerly storage closets. Sometimes, students are tested there.
Special education students also have suffered, say teachers and student advocates. At least one school that has dozens of new special ed students, the Courtenay Language Arts Center, has yet to set up a behavioral health team to assess those children's needs in a faster, more organized way, staff members say.
And teacher Michael Flynn says his school is using a room not much larger than one of those closets as a special education room for 13 children because there's simply no other option.
"There's not enough space. There's not enough resources," said Flynn, a longtime seventh-grade literature and social studies teacher at the James Otis World Language Academy, a welcoming school northwest of downtown Chicago. Despite the school's name, the world languages teacher was among those who lost a classroom because of the space constraints and, instead, travels from room to room.
It's an atmosphere, Flynn says, that has done little to help the colliding worlds meld – and that he and others fear might doom some welcoming schools to the same fate as those that closed.
"There's all this pressure to outperform yourself from last year, even though you've taken in all these kids from tough situations," Flynn said.
"I don't know how you do that."
It's a dilemma that school districts across the country have faced, especially urban districts with big pockets of poverty.
New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are among major cities that have closed dozens of schools in recent years.
The trend has been accelerated by budget shortfalls made worse by the Great Recession and state and federal policies that, experts say, often give districts more incentive to create charter schools.
These latest closures in Chicago represent about 8 percent of the city's public elementary schools, with students ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade.
University of Chicago research, published in 2009, found that previous closures in Chicago didn't boost reading and math scores, unless students transferred to higher-achieving schools – and that a very small percentage of them ended up at those schools.
So in this round of closures, the district has tried to send students and staff from underachieving schools to those with higher test scores (though some parents chose to send their students to private or suburban schools – or to CPS schools that aren't welcoming schools).
Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has promised repeatedly that these closures would save money but still get students better access to libraries, technology and science labs, art and music rooms, as well as social services and counseling.
"This is an opportunity for us to redirect the resources and to ensure that our students are prepared for the 21st century," Byrd-Bennett said last spring, as debate swirled over the plan for widespread closures.
Some teachers and parents decried the plan as an assault on neighborhood schools in low-income neighborhoods. The district and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, they contend, are funneling resources toward magnet and charter schools, even though a good number of those charter schools have yet to prove themselves.
"Every time they cut back, they cut back on OUR children," said Irene Robinson, who has several grandchildren who transitioned to Mollison Elementary, a welcoming school on the city's South Side.
She and others protested outside the Chicago Board of Education's downtown offices.
By the time school started this fall, the public's attention focused largely on safety for students traveling to and from school – and on patrols on established Safe Passage routes throughout the city. Indeed, safety is a very real issue for many transitioning students, though Little points out that, so far, there have been no major incidents.
There's bus service for those who live more than a mile away from their welcoming schools. But for those who live within that mile radius, it means a longer walk home in higher-crime neighborhoods. On nights when he has basketball practice, for instance, Devion Allen walks home in the darkness.
Still, while news cameras have frequently followed students outside school, far less has been reported about what their lives have been like behind school doors.
Whether the atmosphere has truly been welcoming varies from school to school.
At one school that took in new students, Jose De Diego Community Academy, staff members say they'd hoped there'd be an opening assembly to create a sense of unity. Instead, they say a lack of support from school leadership – and an overriding "us" vs. "them" mentality – has led several teachers at the highly rated school to quit.
CPS' Little says there's no doubt that the administrators at De Diego have a tough job, melding not two, but three schools with very different populations that total about 1,000 students. But she supports her principal and says all the people who've quit were new teachers who left the district.
In other instances, principals at welcoming schools have had to choose between raising class sizes or giving up specialty rooms and former office space to create classrooms. At Chopin, boxes of supplies that were in closets-turned-offices now sit in the hallways because people now occupy several of the storage closets.
Little says those are just examples of principals' "creativity," making the most of the space they have.
As difficult as it's been, Beverly Allebach, a third-grade teacher at Chopin, is grateful that her principal chose to keep class sizes small. The district says the average class size at that school is 22, smaller than at some welcoming schools.
But Allebach worries about what will happen next year if special funding for welcoming schools disappears, which is likely: Will there be layoffs at those schools, leading to larger class sizes, anyway?
"I hope that won't happen. But a lot of us fear the worst," says Allebach, who already calls this one of the most difficult years she's had in her 16 years with the district.
No one expected this to be easy, says Kimberly Henderson, principal at Mollison Elementary, a welcoming school on the city's South Side.
"But I'm never going to complain about too many kids," she said of her school, which doubled in population to about 510 students when nearby Overton Elementary School closed.
It's meant bigger class sizes at her school – approaching 30 students, in some rooms. But Henderson thinks that's manageable. (CPS reported a 20-student average elementary class size for the 2008-2009 school year.)
Henderson also had to convert the lunchroom into a second kindergarten class to make room for the influx. Students now eat in the gym. But unlike some other welcoming schools, the school still has a computer lab and art room – and Henderson says she's used the extra welcoming school funding for cultural and after-school programs.
So she questions why some parents would ever want Overton to reopen.
"What are you fighting for?" she asks. "If this is not a better situation, then you should be fighting. But IS it?"
Jeanette Taylor, a Mollison parent who heads the school's local council, is generally complimentary of Henderson's leadership. Despite some problems over bus transportation and a few other hiccups, she says, Mollison has the potential to be a model for welcoming schools.
Still, Taylor remains wary of administrators above her principal and especially of Emanuel, who's widely viewed as a foe of neighborhood schools. The mayor has said he simply wants parents to have more educational options for their children, but Taylor doesn't believe it.
"I've seen it happen before. They come in and wreak havoc on your (neighborhood) school and then close them," Taylor said, standing outside the school to greet students, as she volunteers to do many mornings. It's one of many ways she stays involved at the school she attended as a child.
The mother of a special education student, Taylor is ever watchful of the services her son receives, but she fears that some special ed students in the district are being shortchanged in this transition.
A number of staff members at welcoming schools have those concerns, too. Many who've taught at the higher-performing schools say they simply aren't as equipped to deal with students who sometimes have serious learning and behavior issues.
"These are hard kids from tough backgrounds. A lot of teachers haven't had to deal with those kind of kids before," said Flynn, the teacher at Otis, who says much more training is needed.
Little at CPS referred questions about special education to that department head, who did not respond to requests for an interview. But Little reiterated her claim that most students are in a better situation than they were at the closed schools.
Lucy Riner doubted that would be the case for her son. So she fought hard for another placement after the closure of Trumbull Elementary, the North Side school where 4-year-old Luka Riner attended preschool.
Luka, born with a genetic defect called Trisomy 9 syndrome, needs physical, speech and occupational therapy. He was assigned to a welcoming school that would have required two bus rides to get there.
So his mom made numerous phone calls to the Board of Education this summer and managed to get Luka placed into a highly rated public elementary school closer to their home that is not a welcoming school. She marvels at the services he's already received there.
Riner, who lives on the more prosperous North Side, feels some guilt because she believes she has pull some other parents don't. "I'm a teacher. I know how to advocate for my kid," said Riner, a dance instructor in another school district who thinks race and economics are factors.
"Is it fair? It's totally not fair," said Riner, who is white. "But you better believe I'm going to use it for my special needs kid."
Meanwhile, Flynn, who's been teaching in the district since 1983 – and who got his doctorate last year but opted to stay in the classroom – is among those who worry that welcoming schools will be pulled under in the current conditions.
He looks around his school and talks to teachers at other welcoming schools and wonders how many of them will stay, if conditions don't improve.
"I love what I do," Flynn said. "But it gets to the point where you say, 'Enough.'"