In the early 2010s, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) faced a mounting problem. The district had space for over five hundred thousand students, but only four hundred thousand were enrolled. Schools were academically underperforming, while the system had to manage yearly budget deficits topping $600 million. Clearly, action was necessary.
In 2012, the necessary course of action became explicit. Freshly appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, then CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett decided that in order to solve CPS’s declining academic and financial situation, the district would have to close schools. By December, she was compiling a list of Chicago’s schools operating with enrollment well below capacity, officially denoted “underutilized.” The plan was to close certain underutilized, underperforming elementary schools and transfer their students to nearby under-enrolled “welcoming” schools with better academic records. The school board’s thinking was that by consolidating underutilized schools, CPS could focus scarce resources more effectively, improving students’ education while beginning to address the district’s looming deficit.
Just before the end of the 2012-13 academic year, the city school board decided to shut down forty-nine elementary schools, the largest single closure in Chicago’s—and the country’s—history. In a few short months, thousands of students and teachers transitioned from their old schools to new, usually better performing ones. But the process was anything but smooth.
“It was chaos,” one welcoming school teacher told UChicago researchers, recalling her experience during the 2013 summer transition. Another teacher interviewed described the process with more pointed words: “CPS doesn’t care [about school staff and students]. They just don’t care, and it showed.”
The fallout of these closings lingers six years on. Students are struggling, communities are reeling, and the school district’s budget gap is still not on solid ground. CPS needs to address its numerous shortcomings without repeating past mistakes. A good place to start is with a deeper understanding of the historic 2013 closings, why they occurred, and how they should have been carried out—and if they were even necessary in the first place.
A Developing Crisis
Shutting down forty-nine elementary schools was not an arbitrary decision. It was a reaction to severe system-wide under-enrollment that reflects larger demographic change in the city.
Among the twenty largest American cities, Chicago was the only one to lose residents between 2015 and 2016, and that year is not an outlier. In fact, Chicago has had a steadily declining population since the 1950s. While this trend has caused myriad issues for the city, who has recently been leaving, and from where, has strained the public school system significantly.
Whereas Cook County as a whole has gained about sixteen thousand residents since 2010, the US Census Bureau estimates that, during this same timeframe, the county lost over sixty-one thousand African-American residents. While the reasons for this drop are uncertain, they are likely related to employment and housing. At 12.7 percent, Illinois has the highest black unemployment rate in the country. Alden Loury, the director of research and evaluation at the Metropolitan Planning Council, told the Chicago Sun-Times that the population decline is “largely about lower income and younger African-American families and their challenges to find affordable housing and connections to the job market.”
This is an especially pertinent issue to the school district, as more than 36 percent of its students are African-American. Many of the families leaving Chicago are also young, and shifting youth demographics have been hurting the system since the turn of the century. The number of children in Chicago between the ages of zero and nineteen dropped by 145,000 from 2000 to 2010. According to CPS calculations, in areas that lost more than 25 percent of their school-aged children, one-third of schools are over half-empty.
Along with significant swathes of the South and West sides, low enrollment has afflicted several schools in the Hyde Park area. William H. Ray elementary school, located just east of the Regenstein Library on 56th and Kimbark, was at categorized as underutilized for the 2012-13 school year, being at 78 percent of capacity. Kozminski Community Academy, at 54th and Ellis, fared even worse with a 47 percent enrollment rate, and Reavis Elementary, which sits at the northeast corner of Washington Park, had a paltry 37 percent utilization rate that same year.
Chart by Tanveer Ali, DNAinfo Chicago
In the face of these systemic problems, CPS had to act. Under-enrollment was hurting the city’s students, and while the consequences of the 2013 closings have been far greater than intended, there was hope for success.
According to CPS data collected on the 2011-12 school year, poor school environment—a holistic measurement of school safety, order, and teacher and peer support, and to which severe under-enrollment is typically a significant contributor—was correlated with numerous negative academic indicators. In fact, Chicago public schools with lower environment scores were about 20 percent more likely to be on probation (the district’s demarcation of insufficient academic performance) and over 30 percent less likely to have adequate test-score improvement (as then-defined in the No Child Left Behind law). A full half of the underutilized district schools are on academic probation.
In Hyde Park, both Kozminski and Reavis elementaries—schools with enrollment below 50 percent—were on CPS’s academic probation list in 2013. Meanwhile, William H. Ray (78 percent enrollment), along with Bret Harte Academy, which had an efficient utilization rate of 91 percent, were rated CPS Level 2, indicating they were in “Good Standing.”
Underutilization also hurts schools financially. CPS doles out funding based on student-body size, and though a declining population indeed demands less resources each year, maintenance costs do not. A school may have to make the choice between neglecting its campus or upkeeping unnecessarily large facilities at the expense of its students’ education. None of this even addresses the issue of staffing and the hardship of laying off teachers—a growing concern as enrollment continues to fall.
With these problems in mind, consolidating schools seemed like a practical solution to Chicago’s 2013 school board, appointed by Mayor Emanuel. Emanuel began his term with goals of dragging the struggling school system out of debt and turning academic performance around, so the theoretical economic and educational benefits of closing schools appealed to him. Research on the effects of school closings was sparse at the time, although a couple academic papers had shown closing schools had minimal or negative short-term impacts on student test scores with no long-term positive results.
Unfortunately, warnings about how minority communities could bear the greatest burden of closings also went mostly unaddressed. Since black residents have left Chicago in substantial numbers recently, under-enrollment has disproportionately affected minority communities in the city. “All the areas that [have the biggest drops in population] are black and brown and low-income . . . it is also where the highest unemployment is and the highest gang problem,” Commission on School Utilization Chairman Frank Clark said in a 2012 meeting. As a consequence, black students accounted for 73 percent of enrollment in all underutilized schools that year and 85 percent of the student body in schools more than 50 percent underutilized, according to Chicago Reporter Catalyst Chicago analysis of district data. If under-enrolled schools were to be closed, they would most likely be in majority black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
“The harsh reality is that the areas that are least impacted have few minorities,” Clark further emphasized in 2012, projecting that black and Latino communities would likely suffer the most from closings.
Indeed, after CPS announced it would close a deluge of schools, minority Chicagoans certainly felt like they were shouldering the majority of the burden. A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll conducted right after the decision found widespread opposition to the choice, especially among blacks and Hispanics. They were right to complain, too. Of the nearly twelve thousand students forced to transfer schools in 2013, most were African-American and from families in poverty.
But under-enrolled and underperforming schools were also, in some ways, burdens themselves on the minority communities they tried to serve. With this in mind, the CPS board viewed school closings as a necessary evil in order to raise those students’ quality of education to acceptable levels and even address greater demographic challenges. “We can no longer embrace the status quo because the status quo is not working for all Chicago schoolchildren,” then-CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement on the school board’s decision. Board member Mahalia Hines went further, directly linking struggling schools to depopulation among the city’s black residents. "The decay is too much, and that's why so many middle-class African-Americans have left the city,” she said after casting her vote in favor of the closings.
A Chaotic Operation
After the CPS board officially opted to close nearly fifty elementary schools in May of 2013, they had but a few short months to transfer over twelve thousand students and teachers to new schools before the new academic year began in September. The end goal was fuller schools, better learning environments, and, soon, better academic results. Unfortunately, CPS ultimately mishandled the transition and failed to adequately foster community growth in welcoming schools, causing undue stress and anxiety for all involved.
In a 2018 report, researchers at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research detailed the extensive problems of the transfer. First, the school staff were provided insufficient plans for the process and felt underprepared to handle the situation. There “wasn’t a clear road-map of what [a] welcoming school was supposed to look like,” a principal of a welcoming school told UChicago researchers. Once the school year started, principals at all six elementaries detailed in the report said that much of what had been planned over the summer “went out the window.”
Second, CPS lost many valuable school supplies in the transition, placing great strain on already-anxious teachers. One teacher recalled trying to collect supplies from a closed school—“books were thrown all over the floors and everything was just in a terrible, terrible mess.” The expensive audiovisual system in the school’s auditorium had disappeared—removed by someone, never to be seen again.
To make matters worse, the conditions in some welcoming school buildings were poor, making all members of the newly-expanded community feel undervalued by the system. One welcoming school principal explained his facilities’ uncleanliness to UChicago researchers:
“So I think that they could have had this building more prepared to receive us, to make it look like a new school for the current students that were at [the closed school] . . . and then the [welcoming school] students would feel like they were actually coming to some place that was nice and new and clean vs. coming into something that wasn’t ready or prepared to receive us. I think that was the biggest downfall, the way we came into this building, which was a big setback for us.”
All of these logistical issues burdened school administrators and teachers across the system. Importantly, it took time away from necessary instructional planning.
CPS did try to soften the process, doling out extra resources, technology, and programs to welcoming schools. It also expanded Safe Passage, an initiative that stations workers along designated walking paths around schools to keep students from harm. Unfortunately, these amenities were a one-year deal. Teachers at welcoming schools expressed gratitude for the offerings, but wished CPS had anticipated that the difficult transition would require several years of supported integration.
But CPS could do nothing about the unavoidable impacts a school closing has on its community. A closed school severs long-standing social connections that families and staff had with the school and each other. This leads to what the UChicago researchers termed a “period of mourning.”
The hectic summer of 2013 lives on as a painful memory in the minds of all the students, teachers, and families involved. But the real consequences endure in Chicago’s struggling students and fractured communities.
On the academic side of the issue, a UChicago report found that students from closed schools suffered negative effects from the transition. Their math test scores showed long-term declines, and their reading scores also dropped slightly for several years after the closings. Even welcoming school students saw drops in their reading scores the first year after the mergers, although they fortunately rebounded.
The 2013 closings also created fractures in the communities these schools served. Even before any elementaries shut down, UChicago researchers detailed how the drawn-out process to decide which schools would stay open and which would close bred animosity and rivalries between neighborhoods. Of that period, one CPS principal explained, “It was a year-long ordeal in uncertainty and fear for the communities, the teaching staff, the children. It was really a very, very impacted and traumatic situation to be in.”
At the merged schools themselves, closed-school staff and students felt unwelcome and at times marginalized. This tumult was fed by several prevailing sentiments from both sides of the welcoming and closed-school divide. Welcoming teachers and students frequently mourned what their school was like before the transition and were reluctant to embrace their school’s new role. Meanwhile, closed-school students and staff alike expressed the difficulty in forming new relationships while they still grieved for the loss of their old community. These feelings were also amplified when the closed schools had been open for decades, educating multiple generations of the same family. “I feel like I lost a family member,” one student at such a school told UChicago researchers.
For these reasons, some research suggests that closing schools may always set students back academically and socially. A 2017 review of research by the National Education Policy Center found that the process is a “high-risk/low-gain” strategy that consistently harms students. Whether or not this is set in stone, closing schools can be done better than what happened in Chicago. CPS failed to appropriately manage the strains of transition, leaving a behind wake of grief and academic underperformance.
The Charter School Impact
On top of all this, charter schools are further complicating the city’s under-enrollment issue as CPS tries to respond to the crisis at hand.
For those unfamiliar with charter schools, they are publicly-funded, but privately-run. Relatively new to America’s educational scene, the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1992. Today, they enroll 3.1 million students in forty-three states. They operate under national public education regulations, so they do not charge tuition and are not allowed to teach religion. Charter schools also have to accept all students, and if they receive more than they have capacity for, they have to conduct a lottery.
What sets charter schools most apart from traditional public schools is their management. While typical public schools comply with educational standards set by a central school board, a charter school is operated by a charter, an independent organization not bound to such restrictions. The purpose of this independence is to allow the schools pedagogical freedom: they get to choose their own curriculum, hours, and, more controversially, teachers, who do not have to be on a union contract. Broadly, they allow parents and students more choice in their education.
Charters are not, however, without oversight. Each school requires an authorizer, defined by state law, to monitor their performance. Before the school even comes into existence, the authorizer fields proposals from a community and decides if a charter school is needed in the area. Once approved, the authorizer assigns a charter organization to the school. The charter operates on a contract with the authorizer and is in charge of managing all aspects of the school. After five years or so, the charter comes up for review, and the authorizer determines if the school should stay open. In Illinois, authorizers are usually local school boards and occasionally universities. The University of Chicago authorizes four charter schools—two elementaries, one junior high, and one high school— all on the South Side.
Chicago first embraced charter schools in the nineties under then-Mayor Richard Daley’s efforts to rejuvenate the city’s school system. Now, there are 126 charter schools in the city that enroll over fifty-seven thousand students, up from a mere twelve thousand students in 2005.
The obvious issue is that charters are growing more numerous while the overall system is in free-fall. While charter schools can provide unique educational experiences beyond what typical public schools offer, some are pointing out that the city just does not need more schools right now.
Wendy Katten, Executive director of Raise Your Hand, an Illinois public education advocacy organization, remarked in a 2016 statement that “CPS continues to rapidly expand charters at a time of fiscal crisis and declining enrollment, starving existing schools of needed resources. The money and students are not there to justify this.”
Compounding the problem is the fact that many charter schools are not even that full. A 2016 analysis of WBEZ data by Raise Your Hand found that there were over thirteen thousand empty seats in Chicago charter schools based on CPS standards for ideal enrollment. While charter schools are closer to capacity than traditional district-run schools, both are dealing with under-enrollment issues. Meanwhile, magnet schools, which specialize in a specific subject area such as math and science or languages, remain the most popular in the city with over ninety-nine thousand applications each year.
In the past year, CPS has become more attuned to the problems of opening new schools during an enrollment crisis. In late 2018, officials decided to close two charter schools and deny applications for three new ones. CPS deemed two of the applications academically unsound, but it denied the third because it could not find a neighborhood that wanted or needed another school. Nevertheless, CPS also recently reapproved a new charter school backed by Chicago rapper Common despite some pushback from the Greater Grand Crossing community. The school plans to open there in fall of 2019.
An Uncertain Future
Perhaps the worst part of the under-enrollment crisis is that it is still happening. In fact, it is occurring at an even faster rate than before the 2013 closings. Underlying concerns such as population decline are also ongoing.
In 2018, CPS lifted a five-year moratorium it had placed on school shutdowns, and soon after selected five more schools to close, including all four high schools in Englewood. These schools will be consolidated in a new Englewood high school set to open in fall of 2019.
Chicago’s school system needs more attention, but is closing more schools—in any capacity—a legitimate path forward?
The 2013 closings exposed deep flaws in the way CPS is handling its declining enrollment. If the ordeal proved anything, it was that school closings may be impossible to carry out en masse. The logistics of shutting down fifty schools, nearly all within the span of a single year, are simply too complicated to avoid the chaos that pervaded the summer of 2013.
The question of closing a single school is more complicated. The ensuing academic struggles and community grief are undeniable, but so too is Chicago’s shrinking school-age population. Perhaps the city could adapt certain schools to handle a smaller number of students, but this is an uncommon solution and would require significant resources to maintain the ensuing diffuse school system.
For her part, Janice Jackson, Mayor Emanuel’s final CPS CEO (both Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her successor resigned amid scandals), approached school closings with more caution. She critiqued the widespread shutdowns of 2013 and told the Chicago Tribune she believes closings are “a neighborhood by neighborhood decision.” Indeed, in her oversight of the Englewood high school shutdowns, she made sure that students would be gradually phased out of their old schools, rather than moved all at once.
Whatever new action CPS takes, more community involvement would be a step in the right direction. For example, two-thirds of the abandoned elementaries from the 2013 closings remain empty. The city government promised that neighborhoods would have a say in repurposing these facilities to their benefit, but there are currently no standards in place to ensure community involvement. Giving people a say in their own neighborhood’s development ensures that invested, motivated parties are always part of the decision-making process and would hopefully avoid the stagnation many post-closings communities are experiencing.
It is tough to imagine a community ever deciding to close one of its own schools, but precisely because of this, they need to have a greater say in determining the verdict. Closing forty-nine schools at once was ultimately the decision of a CPS board hand-picked by Rahm Emanuel. Adding some local enfranchisement to this process could go a long way towards valuing the people of each school community that felt so unappreciated by the mass closings.
In contrast to the Emanuel administration, new mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to halt closings and stop charter school expansion. Encouraging for district school communities, she told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I want to have strong neighborhoods schools that are accessible, that are not selective enrollment in any permutation of that, so that kids can walk to their neighborhood schools with their neighborhood friends and build a sense of community.” Upon entering office, however, Lightfoot retained CPS CEO Janice Jackson, who is more open to the idea of closing schools, if in a limited capacity.
It remains to be seen whether or not budget and demographic pressures allow Lightfoot to follow through on her campaign vision, or if school closings are inevitable in Chicago’s near future.
The image featured with this article is used under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. The original was taken by Klio0701 and can be found here.
Chase Gardner is a fourth-year Environmental and Urban Studies major and Statistics minor. On campus, Chase helps research climate change's impacts on agriculture and runs for the varsity Cross Country and Track teams. In free moments, he enjoys reading, walking, crosswords, and playing the guitar.