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New Report Cites Past Disinvestment By CPS in Schools Targeted for Closure

A history of trauma and neglect exposed in “A Tale of Two Schools: The Human Story Behind Destructive School Actions in Chicago”

CHICAGO—The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) issued report examining the upheaval at two elementary schools slated for closure in recent years by Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The study, titled A Tale of Two Schools: The Human Story Behind Destructive School Actions in Chicago, [Click link to download] uses testimony from parents, staff, administrators and community leaders to address district neglect, barriers to improvement, low student morale and other concerns at Simon Guggenheim Elementary and Jacob Beidler Elementary schools, and examine the overall causes and effects of school actions.

“This report presents an autopsy of a school community undermined and destroyed by this school district,” said CTU President Karen Lewis. “CPS starved Guggenheim for years, demonized the teachers, paraprofessionals and clinicians and demoralized the administration and students so it could place this school under arrest, read it its last rites and slate it for execution. Now they are targeting Beidler and 53 other existing school communities in the same manner.”

Located in West Englewood, Guggenheim, 7141 S. Morgan, successfully fought a closing attempt in 2010 before a new CPS-appointed administration presented a number of systemic obstacles to school improvement, epitomized by the mishandling of the school’s homeless student population and a 42-student third-grade class at the start of the 2011-2012 school year. After throwing the school into utter chaos CPS then used the poor test scores and the hostile school climate that it created through years of disinvestment and destabilization to justify the school’s closure in 2012.  

“They broke the family bond,” said former Guggenheim teacher Kimberly Walls.

CPS announced its intentions to close Jacob Beidler Elementary School, 3151 W. Walnut, in 2011 and turn the school’s building over to a charter school. Appalled by CPS’s decision, the East Garfield Park community rallied, marched and organized against the closing and CPS withdrew the proposal. Two years and three CEOs later, CPS once again placed Beidler on a hit list of schools targeted for closure in 2013.

“I think that kids need a stable environment, and this is one of the few stable environments that many of these kids have, where they have familiar faces and people who care about them,” said a Beidler staff member. “It’s going to be a traumatic situation for them to lose many of the people who have been their support system, in addition to their home.”

Anger and fear returned to the Beidler community, which once again had to fight for its school’s survival. Another successful campaign spared Beidler—one of only two East Garfield Park elementary schools to avoid direct impact from 2013 proposed actions.

“What the communities at Guggenheim and Beidler experienced is an example of why there is zero trust in the mayor’s plan to see this plan through honestly and effectively,” Lewis said about CPS’s proposal to close 54 schools, the largest mass school closing in U.S. history.

A Tale of Two Schools presents first-person testimony of CPS’s policy-driven causes and harmful effects of school actions at Guggenheim and the culture of fear created by closure threats at Beidler. Through case studies, the report identifies the obstacles that schools threatened with closure face, and examines how CPS addresses these difficulties. The report also investigates the support available at schools fearing closure and lists the additional resources that could help them succeed. The case studies also address the effectiveness of CPS transition plans and the value of community input at school actions hearings. Each element of these case studies is based on testimony from multiple sources.

Many of the improvements at Beidler mirror the 5 Essential Supports (5 Essentials). Based on more than 20 years of research, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research found that the  5 Essentials consistently correlate with school improvement and provide a more comprehensive approach to school evaluation than simply using scores on standardized tests or “value-added” measures. They are:

  • Effective Leaders
  • Collaborative Teachers
  • Ambitious Instruction
  • Supportive Environment
  • Involved Families

While Beidler excels or is making significant progress on these 5 Essentials, Guggenheim was denied the opportunity to develop these supports. After a thorough investigation of Guggenheim, A Tale of Two Schools concludes that CPS did not provide teachers and staff with the necessary assistance to improve the school. The district, in fact, imposed policies that weakened all five of the Essential Supports. After defeating the 2010 closing attempt, CPS restricted Guggenheim even more, creating serious barriers to the school’s proposed action plan. Then, two years later, CPS came back to Guggenheim and completed the systematic destruction of the school, shuttering its doors for good.

“People feel a disinvestment in the school, the principal changes mid-year, how good is that?” said Rene Heybach of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. At the end of 2011, 91 Guggenheim students qualified as homeless, according to the school’s homeless liaison, paraprofessional Sherri Parker.

“All this conflict starts happening, it makes you feel like your school is disintegrating, and guess what, it is disintegrating,” Heybach said.  

Research for A Tale of Two Schools was supported by a grant from Communitas Charitable Trust, a family foundation funding education and community groups that are committed to empowering people in their schools and communities to establish institutions with the capacity to execute collaborative and democratic practices.

“We fear that this massive school closings plan by CPS will destabilize and destroy communities, thus we chose to help CTU develop this project because CTU has demonstrated its ability and commitment to supporting teachers, parents and community develop strong cooperative actions within their schools and their communities,” Communitas said in a written statement.   

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. Eighty-eight percent of the students affected by school actions from 2001 to 2012 were African-American. Out of the 54 schools proposed for closure in 2013, 88 percent are African-American and only 125 of the 16,119 total students—0.78 percent—are white.

By closing neighborhood schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS are declaring these communities dead zones that are unworthy of targeted investment. But at each school proposed for closing, consolidation, co-location or turnaround, there is a story, a story that involves real students, teachers, staff and administrators who are inextricably linked to their school. Schools are not just a building for students and staff; they are a second home. It is easy to lose the human element when applying complex data, but we cannot let these stories be forgotten when considering destabilizing school actions.

Instead of closing neighborhood schools, CPS must target resources to strengthen existing programs, add support, remove inequities, provide schools with stable leadership and ensure that teachers have what they need to educate and nurture their students. Schools cannot be saved by closing them, and communities cannot prosper without high-quality schools. CPS is contributing to a vicious cycle of disinvestment and population flight that severely hinders the possible revival of established African-American and integrated communities.

Chicago Teachers Union