Chicago Says It Will Close 54 Public Schools

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Correction Appended

CHICAGO -- After weeks of uncertainty, principals at 54 public schools here officially learned from city officials on Thursday that their schools would close, with 11 more to share space with other schools. The closings represent the largest group of campuses to be shut down at one time by a city in recent memory.

Throughout the day, principals, teachers and parents were notified that their schools were on the closing list, their frustration and anger growing. But until late afternoon, neither the mayor's office nor Chicago Public Schools officials would confirm the numbers.

Just before 5 p.m., the district released details. "For too long children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed because they are in underutilized, under-resourced schools," said Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, in a statement.

The district said that it would save $560 million over 10 years by reducing investment in the closed buildings and cut annual operating costs by $43 million.

The closings represent about 8 percent of the 681 public schools in Chicago, the third-largest school district in the country. More than 400,000 students are enrolled in public schools, a large majority black or Hispanic and from low-income families.

After an extensive review, the district said that it had taken 276 schools out of consideration for closing. The final decision came just two weeks after a state commission in Pennsylvania announced a decision to close 23 schools in Philadelphia. Districts in Detroit, Newark and Washington have also closed schools in recent years.

In Chicago, where about 100 schools have already been closed since 2001, Ms. Byrd-Bennett has said that the district needs to reduce a $1 billion deficit. "By consolidating these schools, we can focus on safely getting every child into a better performing school close to their home," she said Thursday.

Union leaders and parent activists protested the decision, saying that closings can undermine neighborhoods and cause safety problems for students who may as a result have to cross gang lines.

"We're going to have abandoned buildings," said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, in an interview. "They destabilize the neighborhoods around them."

"They are moving people around on spreadsheets," Ms. Lewis added. "And children are not spreadsheets."

Some parents worry that their children will not get the attention they need once schools are consolidated and class sizes expand.

"This is the first time in a long time this school has actually got a reasonable amount of kids in the classrooms," said Torrence Shorter, a parent who sends four children ages 8 to 14 to Martin A. Ryerson Elementary School, which is on the closing list. Mr. Shorter is particularly concerned that his 8-year-old son, Joshua, who is in a special-education class with just 11 other students, will be forced into a much larger class.

At Joseph Stockton Elementary on the North Side of Chicago, another school on the list, Claudia Pesenti, a first-grade teacher, said she did not believe the school was "underutilized." With 22 students in her classroom, she said, "I even think there should be a better ratio just because of the needs of 5- and 6- and 7-year-olds. We're fortunate to have 22 in the sense that other schools have over 30, but I still think it's really criminal."

Rebecca Carroll, a spokeswoman for the city schools, said that schools are funded with the expectation of an average class size of 30 students. But she said that was a "budgetary, not academic decision."

The district says that with the money it saves from closing schools, it will invest in air-conditioning for all classrooms; libraries; expanded math, science and fine arts curriculums; iPads for all students in grades 3-8 and programs for advanced students.

Some studies have shown that savings are often less than anticipated.

"Our research found that school districts tended to save under $1 million per school" closed, said Emily Dowdall, a senior associate at the Pew Charitable Trusts who has studied school closings. "So in some ways that's not a game changing amount."

Critics say that even more significant than cost, school closings tend to affect the poor and minorities disproportionately. In the 100 schools that have closed in Chicago since 2001, 88 percent of the students affected were black. Over all, black students make up 42 percent of the city schools enrollment.

It is not clear that students displaced from shuttered schools end up attending better ones. In one study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago of 38 schools closed between 2001 and 2006, the researchers found that only 6 percent of the students who were originally enrolled in schools that closed were sent to academically strong schools.

After school let out Thursday at Robert Emmet Elementary School, one of the campuses slated for closing, students emerged clutching enrollment forms for the schools to which they will transfer. "This is a horrible school to go to," said Heaven Briggs, 13, a seventh grader whose grandmother, Yvette Gardner, agreed that Emmet was "a bad school."

Heaven is scheduled to attend Edward K. Ellington Elementary School next year, a school rated in "excellent standing" by the district. Emmet, by contrast, has a "low academic standing" rating.

Steven Yaccino reported from Chicago, and Motoko Rich from New York.

Correction: March 22, 2013, Friday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a researcher at the Pew Charitable Trusts. She is Emily Dowdall, not Dowall.

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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