Chicago Teachers Union report points finger for “failing schools” at CPS policy of disinvestment

Chicago Teachers Union report points finger for “failing schools” at CPS policy of disinvestment

Neighborhoods across the city are desperately fighting to keep their schools open, many of them by arguing that the 50-plus closures suggested by Chicago Public Schools officials will devastate their already ailing communities. A report from the Chicago Teachers Union released last month looks at the devastation that the neighborhood schools were facing in another way--before the latest list of school closures came down the pipeline.

The 73-page “A Tale of Two Schools” zooms into the day-to-day operations of two Chicago Public Schools in troubled neighborhoods. Simon Guggenheim Elementary School in West Englewood and Jacob Beidler Elementary School in East Garfield Park both have similar percentages of low-income students and are in communities facing high rates of violence.

But one of them, Guggenheim, is on the list for closure, while the other narrowly escaped having its doors shut. The difference, the report argues, is that Guggenheim was deliberately starved of resources and had its administration destabilized by changing principals repeatedly in the past few years. The report calls the process “disinvestment.”

CPS did not respond to repeated requests for comment, nor did the mayor’s office.

While Beidler in East Garfield Park also suffered from lack of resources at times, the report argues the district gave it the opportunity to follow a school evaluation plan called 5 Essential Supports, developed by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research. The report argues that the plan provides a more comprehensive way of judging the success of a school. Meanwhile, Guggenheim was never given the opportunity.

The report was written under a grant from Communitas Charitable Trust, a family foundation that funds education and community groups with a specific focus on supporting public institutions, according to Paula Baron, a trustee of the fund.

The report uses a series of interviews and first-person testimony, CPS statistics about the schools and policy research to tell the stories of the two schools. It also uses these two schools as larger examples of school investment trends within CPS.

Along with its release of the report, the teachers union announced its plan to register 100,000 new voters to oust Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the 2015 mayoral race.

As well as documenting the struggles and, at some points, victories of the two schools, the report includes other dimensions. It describes the education received by those in Chicago’s low-income communities, which adds to the landscape of poverty, foreclosure and high rates of incarceration.

Below are three of the main claims set forth in the report:

CPS purposefully denied Guggenheim resources through a policy of disinvestment

The majority of students who attended the Englewood school were low income--94.5 percent received free lunches as of the 2011-2012 school year--and the report contends that CPS did not do its duty in providing the school’s students with sufficient resources to overcome the challenges they face.

For example, the report states, third-graders went without a trained teacher for five months after one teacher quit due to lack of support from administration. This then led to a large group of students falling even further behind academically. The result: “The percentage of [third-graders] meeting or exceeding state standards in reading plummeted from 44.4 percent in 2010 to 14.7 percent in 2011.”

“Wraparound services,” which focus on connecting students and their parents to services to deal with learning or emotional difficulties, were “virtually nonexistent” at Guggenheim. The school did not have a counselor on staff for nearly six years--from the 2004-2005 school year to February 2011. The school’s psychologist was only part-time, and social workers were stretched too thin to deal with the needs of the students.

The report also contends that having three different principals between 2010 and 2012 led to high teacher turnover and a lack of vision that prevented the school from implementing longer-term programs to help its students learn. Then there was the lack of teaching resources, the report found, from teachers being forced to pay out of pocket for their own journals and maps, to an ongoing shortage of basics like textbooks.

The report claims all of these factors made lower test scores more likely and the school a candidate for closure.

Schools are not only buildings, but homes for many students who may not even have one stable home

Guggenheim had a high percentage of homeless students, with 22 percent of them “doubled up,” in a homeless shelter or living on the street. Academics is further down the list of concerns for these students as “homeless children have much more to worry about than understanding the daily lesson, practicing their reading, completing their homework or preparing for the [Illinois Standard Achievement Test]. They are concerned for their survival,” the report states.

Guggenheim had a 28.4 percent mobility rate, or percentage of students who had transferred in or out of the school, in 2011. This was higher than the district average of 17.6 percent and the statewide average of 12.8 percent during 2011--2012. Switching schools could have a devastating effect on students, the report found.

“Each time children change their school, they lose important mentors and friends. They often have to adapt to an entirely different curriculum, teaching style and school culture. Research estimates that because of these factors, students who switch schools lose 4-6 months of valuable academic time. This may even be a low estimate,” the report says.

And school closings only exacerbate the problem of students leaving the school at high rates, the report says. “A school closing inherently causes mobility, forcing all students to change schools, but schools with high homeless populations have an even more difficult time preparing their students for the disruption, as well as tracking them once the school has closed.”

Marisa de la Torre, a director for internal research capacity at the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, has looked at the effects that closings had on student test scores both before and after they the closings were announced.

In the 2009 report, When Schools Close, de la Torre followed 5,500 students from 18 elementary schools that were closed between 2001 and 2006.  She looked at the schools for 2-4 years before and after the closings.

De la Torre found that once students left for their new schools the results in test scores were neutral but that there was a negative change after the closing was announced but before the move.

“We think this has to do with the way closings were done in the past,” she told The Chicago Reporter recently. “The announcement usually took place in December, January or February, and so there were a few months in between going to the new school which caused some anxiety for the parents, students and teachers.”

School disinvestment leads to a cycle of disinvestment for the community

Fewer students mean less need for shops and businesses, and that affects the community as a whole, the report contends:

“The district’s strategy would significantly reduce the likelihood of any future reinvestment or repopulating in the communities affected by school closure,” the report says. “If there is no local school to send their children, why would a family move to the area? If families are not moving into the area, why would businesses or the city spend money to beautify or provide new opportunities in the community?”

And there is a larger political role, the report goes on to state:

“CPS is creating a vicious cycle of disinvestment and population suppression that severely limits the ability of African-American communities on the South and West Sides to reemerge as thriving neighborhoods,” it says. “By closing neighborhood schools, CPS and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are declaring these communities dead zones that are unworthy of targeted investment.”

Photo credit: Chicago Public Media

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