Reuters

Officials may close as many as 100 public schools in Chicago this year. But the politics of right-sizing are never easy.

The Chicago Public Schools' seven-day teachers strike may have long since ended, but it was just one of a series of important events that will redefine the nation’s third largest public school system this year. Last month, schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard stepped down. Now, new CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett must deal with a $1 billion budget deficit and plans to shutter as many as 100, or about a sixth, of the city's district-run schools.

Unlike previous years, where school closures or handovers were dictated by student performance, the district plans to determine which schools to close this time based on how buildings are used. If a school building is over- or under-capacity, it would be under consideration for anything, including closure, consolidation, redefined boundaries or a phase-out.

Officials hope this will bring the district to its right size, claiming it now has only 400,000 students for 600,000 seats.

It’s going to be a tough sell. Though districts turn to closing schools to deal with smaller enrollments, crumbling infrastructure or poor performance, they are often met with fierce opposition, especially in minority neighborhoods. Opponents see shuttering schools or handing them over to charter operators as a bet against their communities.

"Public education has always been a vehicle for a better life," says Rosalie Mancera, a community activist with the Pilsen Alliance in Chicago. "When you start closing down or privatizing schools, that’s the end of public education. Why not put money into neighborhood public schools that everybody thinks are bad?"

Byrd-Bennett knows school closures is a delicate process. She wants to extend a state deadline for submitting names of schools for closure from December 1 to March 1 in order to bring as many parents on board. “We need to acknowledge that the community simply does not believe what we say we’re going to do," Byrd-Bennett said Friday in front of the Chicago Urban League. “We need to build trust. I’m not even talking about rebuild — I don’t know if the ‘re’ was there. We need to build trust, we need to build respect and we need to build transparency."

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Byrd-Bennett has experience closing urban schools. Previously, she tamed the budget at the Detroit Public Schools, which today has a enrollment slightly above 51,000, less than a third of the total population in 2000. She worked on a team that shuttered dozens of schools in the city, taking into account everything from enrollment, academics and gang affiliations of neighboring school areas, says Robert Bobb, who served as emergency manager of the Detroit district from 2009 to 2011. Bobb says his team's decision-making was never reliant on just one of these factors, but how they would affect a neighborhood's dynamic if a school closed or remained. Despite this care, closures were met with parental opposition. Nonetheless, even under a new manager, school closures have continued.

"When you take a school out of a low-income neighborhood, it affects a community," Bobb says. "The school is seen as a rallying cry around a neighborhood. It gives a message that we will close our school and we may be disinvesting from that neighborhood. You really have to work with those communities to show that that's not happening."

School closings have rarely occurred without controversy in Chicago in the past decade. In 2011, Illinois passed a law requiring planned school closings to be subjected to a more rigorous, transparent and public process before their approval. The law was passed in hopes that it with halt or at least stall further closings in a district that's seen dozens of them in recent years. Despite the district’s promise, opponents worry the closures will unfairly target schools in poor, minority neighborhoods where a sense of disinvestment is pervasive.

"Chicago Public Schools does not have a space utilization problem," says Jitu Brown, education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. "It's not the natural migration out of the neighborhoods that made these schools underutilized. It's the district's policies.”

Bobb and researchers who have studied school studies acknowledge there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model to school closures. Last year, the Pew Charitable Trusts commissioned a report analyzing school closures in seven urban school districts that have experienced large drops in student enrollment this century.

The school district in Kansas City, Missouri, was especially successful at closing 29 schools, or about half of its school district, in 2009 and 2010, according to the Pew report. The process included public input from City Council members, who pushed for equal closures throughout the city, and parents alike. The district also paired school closings with new instructional approaches that embrace technology and personalize learning based on individual abilities, not grade-level. 

Lengthening the public deliberation process may help Chicago’s school district pitch the closures better, but especially on the city’s South and West Sides, the poor and minority parts of town, there’s a long memory of their schools being shuttered disproportionately. In the end, the Chicago Public Schools must prove that this next swath of school closures isn’t merely about the district’s bottom line, but the future of the city’s children as well.

With school closings "you have to offer parents and children something better and if you can't offer them something better, it's a very difficult sell," Bobb says.

Top image: Ferenc Szelepcsenyi /Shutterstock

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