Trib Bats Cleanup On School Violence

Today's Tribune editorial on school closings is a good one, following up on reporter Stephanie Banchero's recent work describing the impact of transfers at Clemente HS among other places. Thanks to one of my helpful readers for making sure I saw it. 

As longtime readers will notice, however, the Trib's good work on school violence echoes some of the reporting done by the CST's Rosalind Rossi about school violence earlier this winter -- as well as my own oped from earlier this Spring in the CST about the right way to close a school (below).   

Chicago Sun Times

March 5, 2006
The right way to close a Chicago public school:
Even when shutting down makes perfect sense, much of the neighborhood turmoil could be avoided

Last week, the Chicago Board of Education decided to close a handful of low-performing public schools at the end of the school year, a process that has become regular -- but no less contentious -- each of the past several years.

At a series of hearings and public meetings this winter that concluded with the board's decision, the emotional climate was an intense mix of anger, fear and frustration -- almost all of it in opposition to the closings.

No wonder, then, that CPS is one of the few districts in the nation that regularly closes low-performing schools.

In objective terms, the schools to be closed seem to be beyond repair. Closing them is a high-risk but perhaps necessary step that the board deserves credit for taking.

And yet, two questions remain: Why do some parents, teachers and residents so strongly oppose these school closings, and what can be done to improve the process?

One fundamental reason for the opposition is that a public school in many neighborhoods is a major civic institution that provides safety, stability and (to some small extent) jobs. The school is defined as successful if it is safe, welcoming to parents and making a good-faith effort to get better. Test scores have little to do with it.

Moreover, the board has a tumultuous history in many of the neighborhoods where schools are being closed -- broken promises for extra resources and new buildings. This history can't be forgotten.

Nor should the fact that school closings don't always work. They can be extremely hard on kids and teachers. A child forced to go to another school faces new social and academic challenges. And the new school may fail just as badly as the old school.

When it comes to making the process work better, the folks at 125 S. Clark seem to think that nothing more can be done -- that people will be furious with them no matter what. And to some extent that may be true.

The board has already made a number of changes to reduce the drama and frustration. It announces school closings earlier in the year, has clarified the criteria for closing schools, gives kids the option of transferring to much better schools outside their immediate neighborhoods, and -- starting next year -- sets aside funds to help the kids moving to new schools.

But the process remains way more disruptive and contentious than it has to be.

First and foremost, the board should eliminate the element of surprise by announcing a tentative list of school closing candidates in the fall when the test scores from the past year become available. As it is now, the board keeps the list of possible closings private until the very day the final recommendations are announced, putting schools on and off the list up to the last minute. It's a mid-year drama nobody needs -- and becomes the focus for doubts about the legitimacy of the process.

The board also should create a school-closing commission like those set up by Congress to determine which military bases should be closed. The closing process needs to be regular, transparent and somewhat independent of the board -- especially since the closing criteria will be altered next year.

The board would be wise to make it clear to the public well ahead of time just how broken these schools are, rather than scrambling to explain afterward. Invite the press to visit the schools under consideration. Set reporters up with parents and graduates who can talk about their experience at these schools. And document carefully how students who have transferred to new schools are doing.

Right now, all that gets covered in the press is how "mean" the board is and how "good" the school is. That's not inevitable.

Last but not least, the board has to stop fudging around when describing what's being done. Using clunker terms like "re-born," "phased out," "consolidated," "reconstructed" and "reconstituted" doesn't help, especially when the terms are not used consistently.

Just say the schools are being closed.

This year, as in the past, there has been confusion among educators and the press about just what is being done to which schools, and how many schools are involved. This doesn't help with credibility, which is always at a premium with the board.

Closing schools still won't be easy, and it still won't always work. But there's a better way to go about it.

Alexander Russo Russo is an independent education writer. His Web site, District 299, www.district299.typepad.com, covers Chicago school reform.

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