At the start of the 21st century, Chicago had nearly 2.9 million residents. By 2010, less than 2.7 million people lived here, a 6.9 percent decline in population. Chicago's school-age population took an even bigger hit, with the number of children between the ages of 5 and 19 falling 18 percent.
Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett created the Commission on School Utilization to recommend which schools to close. (Michael Tercha, Chicago Tribune / November 26, 2012)
Given that decline, it's little surprise that so many schools in our city are below capacity. More than half of Chicago's public schools are underutilized, and more than 140 are less than half full. In total, there are more than 100,000 empty seats throughout the city.
But it's the kids affected by those numbers who demand our attention. Too often, kids in underutilized schools are forced into split-grade classrooms, stuck in classes that are, paradoxically, overcrowded, and denied enrichment in key electives like music and art. That has to change.
To thrive in the 21st century, Chicago must compete with other world-class cities by offering a world-class education. And that starts by better targeting our limited education dollars as efficiently as possible. How? We have to tackle the hard issue of consolidating the public school district and closing some of the city's most underutilized schools.
Of course, it's not that simple. If this was just an issue of aligning the numbers, a computer algorithm could quickly produce a list of schools to be closed. Nor is it about shuttering small schools in favor of big mega-schools. When it comes to education, one size definitely does not fit all.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has asked me and eight other concerned residents to figure out exactly what consolidation should look like. The independent Commission on School Utilization has been charged with consulting with communities throughout the city, listening to their suggestions and concerns, and using their input to develop a plan for consolidation.
Our work will be open and inclusive. The public is welcome at our data-gathering sessions. We're holding a series of community meetings around the city. And we're putting all the information we're collecting on our website, schoolutilization.com. We've engaged academics, CPS officials and the Chicago Teachers Union to provide information we can use to shape our decision.
We'll take into account building condition, budget, safety, utilization, and the impact any school action would have on a community. That's all, and that's plenty. We're not considering academic performance. Nor are we involved in any decisions -- authorizing, renewing, closing -- related to charter schools.
Which schools will we recommend for closing? We don't yet know. We don't have a pre-determined list of schools slated to be shut down. And drafting a list before we engage with our communities would be premature. We need to make sure we're not fixing what isn't broken. We must not shutter schools that, though technically underutilized, are a vibrant hub of community activity housed in high-quality buildings. We have to ensure that the people who could be most affected by school closings -- African-American and Latino families on the South and West sides -- won't have to endure increased violence, transportation obstacles and roadblocks to parental access and engagement as a side effect of consolidation. We have to build community trust.
We also, though, can't indefinitely delay the hard decisions. We can't afford the status quo. By 2014, CPS's budget deficit will reach nearly a billion dollars.
It's true that closing underutilized schools won't make a huge dent in a deficit that large. According to a study on school closings done by the Pew Charitable Trusts, districts usually realize less than $1 million in annual savings for each closed school in the short term.
But in the longer term, those savings will multiply. Nearly half of Chicago's schools were built before 1930, and maintaining aging facilities is increasingly expensive. Shuttering some underutilized buildings means we won't be paying for new boilers, new roofs and new windows for old, outdated structures.
Instead, we'll be able to funnel our resources to the things that really matter for our kids -- libraries and playgrounds, enrichment programs like art and music, extra support for the kids who've fallen behind and extra engagement for those who are achieving at the highest levels. Consolidation will allow CPS to expand access to magnet, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and international baccalaureate programs. And consolidation will ensure that enrollment is high enough to allow for single-grade classrooms at the elementary school level.
Source: Chicago Tribune | Frank Clark