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The Chicago manual of school closings

A close look at how Chicago officials shutter public schools

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As Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his schools team inch closer to the latest announcement of which schools they plan to close, I thought it would be a good time to examine how their predecessors have gone about it.

At the very least, I'd like to have a basis for evaluating the mayor's performance when he gets around to making his moves—which he swears he'll do sometime next month, so help him god.

That's why I've turned to the Second Ward. Stretching from the Loop into the near-south and -west sides, it's made up of racially and economically diverse communities with some of the city's highest- and lowest-performing schools.

Over the last few years, Chicago Public Schools officials have announced a dizzying series of openings and closings there. At this point, after a close look at what's happened, the only conclusion I can draw is that if the district has a long-term plan, it's not something they want to admit or even talk about.

But let's hold that thought for a minute.

My tour guide is a woman who knows more about the history of schools in and around the Second Ward than seems humanly possible: Leslie Recht, a lawyer and educational advisor to Alderman Robert Fioretti.

Our historical tour starts with Cather school, at 2908 W. Washington, in the northwest corner of the ward. It's a relatively high-scoring neighborhood school that by 2010 had a falling enrollment, largely because the neighborhood population was dropping after years of gentrification and the demolition of public housing complexes. It's a familiar theme in this part of town.

CPS decided to fill the Cather building with Urban Prep, a charter school that responded to a CPS request for proposals to establish a high school in East Garfield Park. It was part of the district's broader attempt to spread charters through as many low-income neighborhoods as possible.

In 2011, though, CPS officials undecided to use Cather for that purpose. Instead, they determined that Urban Prep would be better situated in Beidler, a grammar school a few blocks away. But that announcement set off a firestorm of local opposition from parents at both schools who worried that moving kids from one place to the next would cause friction among rival gangs.

So CPS backed off and moved Urban Prep into the old Medill school at 1326 W. 14th Place. The plan calmed folks at Cather and Beidler. On the other hand, the school isn't actually in East Garfield Park. So let's just forget the request for proposals that got this ball rolling.

All in all, it illustrates the logistical headaches school officials create when they decide to open new charters before they know where to put them. Good luck with the next round of that, Mayor Emanuel.

A far different challenge developed at Skinner school, at 1260 W. Adams.

For years, Skinner has been one of the city's highest-achieving schools. Students have to score well to get in—though I'm not sure how you can use tests to accurately gauge the talents of five-year-olds. Whatever's going on must work, because those Skinner kids are typically quite brainy.

Anyway, the school was old so they decided to build a new one, which meant temporarily moving the students to the Sojourner Truth school, on the near-north side. Sojourner Truth had been closed after the city demolished most of the Cabrini-Green housing complex and moved the residents to Iowa, or wherever they put the poor people kicked out of public housing.

CPS then spent about $42 million to build a new Skinner school, which opened last year.

By then, scores of middle-class parents had moved into the near-west side, and they were clamoring for a decent neighborhood school so they wouldn't have to spend big bucks on private tuition or pack up for the suburbs.

To accommodate them, CPS set aside more neighborhood slots in the original Skinner. To deal with the high-scoring kids who don't live in the area, they created a second Skinner: they called it Skinner North and put it in the old Schiller Elementary building, at 640 W. Scott, which had also been closed when Cabrini was leveled.

Skinner North now limits enrollment to the superskilled test takers, which leaves more slots in the original Skinner—now called Skinner West—for neighborhood kids.

Everyone's happy! Or as happy as any supercharged parent ever is.

Not far from Skinner West is Calhoun North, at 2833 W. Washington. To be honest, it's not really relevant to this column, but I'd like to take the opportunity to mention it anyway because it's named after former vice president John C. Calhoun, who, among other things, was a passionate defender of slavery.

I think we can all agree it's time CPS came up with a different name for a school whose students are almost all black. Although, now that I think about it, Calhoun isn't a good name for any school, regardless of the race, creed, or color of its students.

Hey, Mayor Emanuel, if you make the change you don't even have to give me credit.

In the south part of the ward we come to the Roosevelt and Ashland area, which for decades was served by several neighborhood elementary schools: Gladstone, Jefferson, Smyth, Riis, and two schools named Medill. Since the 90s, though, the city has razed public housing and replaced it with middle- and upper-middle-class homes, and one after another the schools have been shuttered or recycled.

One of the Medills, of course, was closed and turned over to Urban Prep. The other is now home to a charter school called Chicago Tech Academy. Riis was torn down to make way for a development. Gladstone was closed and handed over to Noble, another charter. Jefferson became STEM Magnet Academy, a science-heavy school with a citywide enrollment determined by a lottery. And Smyth remains a neighborhood school, but with an International Baccalaureate magnet component.

Currently, Smyth is roughly 92 percent black and 95 percent low-income, while STEM is a mix of white, black, and Hispanic of all incomes.

If I wanted to be blunt about these things, I'd say that officials created STEM as a haven for middle-class parents while leaving Smyth to cope with the poor kids.

And I'd note that CPS uses charters to take care of a community's educational needs during the time poor people are moving out and wealthier people are moving in. At which point they create a regular public school with unionized teachers who get paid a decent salary, because as everyone knows, you get what you pay for.

In defense of CPS—well, you try figuring this stuff out. Make the wrong move and you've got a room filled with parents calling you names, Reader writers questioning your integrity, and F-bomb-dropping mayors yelling at you to make the problems go away.

I can't wait to see what Mayor Emanuel will do this time around—or, more to the point, how he's going to spin whatever he does.

As you know, the mayor is relatively new to Chicago, having spent much of his adult life in Washington, D.C. Let's hope he's a fast learner.

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