Progress Illinois provides highlights from a panel discussion on the aftermath of the 2013 school closings in Chicago.
Emotions ran high at a Thursday night panel discussion on the aftermath of Chicago's controversial school closings in 2013.
The discussion with Chicago Board of Education Member Jesse Ruiz, education organizers and researchers followed a screening of The School Project's documentary, "Chicago Public Schools: Closed." The short documentary follows a family impacted by the school closings, Rousemary Vega and her husband Jesus Ramos, whose children went to the now-closed Jean D. Lafayette Elementary School in Humboldt Park.
Vega and her family attended Thursday's event, held at the University of Chicago's Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. The Logan Center auditorium was filled with education activists, families from closed schools, Chicago Mayoral Candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and others.
"I don't know how you even have the heart to sit here and face so many of us" who had their schools closed, Vega told Ruiz during audience participation. "You see these kids? You took their school."
In May 2013, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close a record 49 elementary schools, as well as one high school program housed in an elementary school, in order to address the Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) reported underutilization crisis. Forty-seven of those 49 elementary schools closed in June 2013.
Thursday's documentary screening and panel discussion coincided with the release of a new report from U of C's Consortium on Chicago School Research that examined student enrollment patterns after the 2013 school closings. Researchers presented their findings at the event.
Of the nearly 12,000 students affected by the 47 elementary school closings in June 2013, 94 percent of them re-enrolled in a CPS school, and 6 percent left the district, according to the consortium's report. Sixty-six percent of displaced students enrolled in their designated "welcoming school."
Ninety-three percent of students who stayed in the district enrolled in higher performing CPS schools. However, only 21 percent enrolled in schools with the best "Level 1" academic rating, under the district's previous performance assessment model that has since been revised, the report showed.
"That is partly because there is a lack of highly-rated schools in some neighborhoods," the report's co-author Molly Gordon said of the 21 percent figure.
Of the students impacted by the school closings, 88 percent were African-American, 95 percent were low-income and 17 percent received special education services.
The report's findings are based on CPS records, Chicago Police Department crime reports, U.S. Census data and interviews with 95 families directly affected by the school closings.
Many impacted families told researchers that a school's proximity to home was a key factor in deciding where to re-enroll their children. A safe commute to school was also a top-cited priority of parents.
There were several barriers that limited school options for some families, including safety concerns, lack of transportation, unavailable slots at schools, difficulties finding necessary supports and services for special needs students and not enough time to look for other schools, reachers said.
"Although families in theory had a choice to send their children to any school with open seats, in reality, many families faced constraints getting into some other schools of their choice," Gordon said.
During audience participation, Erica Clark with Parents 4 Teachers noted that the consortium's report did not examine the conditions in schools that took in displaced students. Parents 4 Teachers issued its own report last June examining the outcomes of the school closings, based on 51 phone surveys of parents from closed schools. According to the group's findings, the "vast majority of parents from closed schools reported problems at their children's new school," including unprepared receiving schools, an unwelcoming school culture, overcrowding, lack or loss of school services and programs and lack of facility and equipment upgrades in receiving schools.
"I'd like to ask you, Mr. Ruiz, what are going to do about this," Clark asked the board member. "I'm concerned, I think as we all are, that the conditions in these schools are actually even worse."
Ruiz said CPS is doing its own study on the matter, and the findings could be ready for public release at some point later this year.
"There is a study going on and we have been monitoring," Ruiz said. "Preliminarily, we're seeing less instances of violence. We're seeing less expulsions and suspensions for those students. We're seeing better test scores, not where we want them obviously, but better, and preliminary data is good. There were 12,000 students impacted. If you look at the welcoming schools as well, that was an additional 18,000 students and families impacted, so this is a large pool of students, so obviously it's a great set of data."
Panelist Jitu Brown with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and the Journey for Justice Alliance argued that the consortium's findings and past data show that school closings have not improved education in the city.
"We keep using this model that has failed," Brown said, adding that the "lack of connectedness" at the school district-level to people living in communities is "driving these policies, and also screams for the need of an elected, representative school board."
Asif Wilson, a displaced Chicago teacher from the now-closed Horatio May Elementary Community Academy on the West Side, echoed calls for an elected school board, saying the mayoral-appointed board is not accountable to the public. The Chicago Board of Education is the only non-elected school board in Illinois, and the state legislature must ultimately change the rules.
In his experience during the school closings, Wilson said he "learned that the system was designed to do exactly what it was set up to do, and it's doing exactly that -- to fail black and brown children."
Ruiz, former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, pointed out that there "is no mass conspiracy to do anything harmful to any community." He also said elected school boards do not always "equal perfect."
"There are a number of elected school districts across the state that, frankly, when I was on the state Board of Education, I had to overtake because they weren't serving the interest of their students," he noted.
Brown acknowledged that an elected school board is not necessarily a cure-all solution to education problems.
Although "an elected school board is not a guarantee to school improvement," Brown said the issue boils down to having fair representation.
"Virtually every appointed school board in the United States serves populations that have primarily African-American and Latino children," he said. "When has our voice been heard in these environments?"
As far as the school closings, Ruiz called them "gut-wrenching decisions."
Ruiz noted that in prior years, school closings in the city have targeted low-performing schools. In 2013, the district closed schools to address underutilization. The city's school system is designed for 511,000 students, he said, but it currently has less than 400,000.
The board member said underutilization, even after the last round of school closings, is still a problem in the district.
There is about a "third too many high schools in the city for the amount of high school population students we have," Ruiz said.
That was was of one several comments from Ruiz that caused an outburst from audience members. During the event, event attendees told Ruiz to "stop with the lies" and accused the school district of "destabilizing neighborhoods and making rich people richer."
In response to Ruiz's comments about empty high school seats, panel discussion moderator and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington asked whether that meant there could be more school closings in the near future.
"We have said there is a five-year moratorium" on school closings, Ruiz said. "We're in the second year of a five-year moratorium, 'cuz we realize it's disruptive. And trust me, it's nothing that anyone wants to do ... When I joined the school board, I did not join the school board to close schools."
When asked whether there could be school closings after the five-year moratorium is lifted, Ruiz said such thinking is "the furthest thing from our minds." He said the focus is currently on how to "improve the system we have" and asking "how do we get better?"
Ruiz also pointed out that the district is cash-strapped and long-term, state-level reforms, specifically around school funding and pensions, are needed to help address its fiscal issues.
"We're holding the governor is true to his word that he said he will put more funds into public education," Ruiz said of Gov. Bruce Rauner. "I can say, I did not vote for the man, but I wish him all the best in that regard, because we desperately need it ... We've got to reform the way we fund our schools. Get away from property taxes. It's got to be based on the income taxes, and hopefully get to a progressive income tax some day in Illinois" so schools across the state can receive more adequate funding.