Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett released her long awaited school safety plan Thursday for the schools that will be closed -- and for schools that will be receiving students from closed schools. Byrd-Bennett says a safety plan is part of an overall transition plan that principals and parents will receive if their school is slated for closure. We take a look at a so-called "underutilized" school that will be staying open -- and adding students -- because of its high performance.
An empty classroom tells the story. The Willa Cather Elementary School on the city’s west side was built to serve 500 students. Today, only 223 students attend the grade school. The entire second floor of the two-story school sits empty. Principal Hattie King says there are several reasons for the school’s drop in enrollment.
“The main factors would have to do with gentrifying of the neighborhoods, and so a number of our families have moved out of the neighborhood,” King said.
Only half full, Cather is listed as an underutilized school, and initially was on the list to be closed. But because it is a high-performing school -- 80 percent of Cather students’ reading and math scores are above the state average -- it is now off the potential closure list. Its high performance also means it’s likely to receive students from schools that will be closed.
King says she would welcome the additional resources new students bring.
“We would definitely focus on broadening the experiences for the students with additional after school programs that focus more on the arts and music, and that type of thing. But also we have a need for more technology within the school,” said King.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett says schools like Cather will have the resources they need when lower-performing, underutilized schools are closed, and students and resources transferred to schools like Cather.
But resistance to closing schools remains high. Thirty community meetings have been held across the city. CPS says 20,000 contacts have been made. Byrd-Bennett says she is now pouring over transcripts from those meetings before she makes her final recommendations to the school board March 31.
“It's generating a lot of reading at night. I usually get home at 8:30 at night, and I usually read until midnight or 1:00 am, and then harass staff with questions,” she said. “Then, a few hours sleep, shower and I’m back here in the morning. And I know that that's the kind of intensity that this is going to require until I can take a recommendation to the board that I feel comfortable with.”
Byrd-Bennett is also meeting one-on-one with elected officials, such as Ald. JoAnn Thompson (16th), as well as faith-based leaders and community organizations.
Meanwhile, her transition team holds daily meetings to map out plans for both schools that will be closed and schools that will receive new students.
That's good news for Cather. What Principal King worries about the most is having a transition plan in place if Cather does become a receiving school.
“Just trying to make sure again that that’s done in a timely enough manner, that we can get all of the logistics worked out, as well as reaching out to all the stakeholders,” said King. “And to be able to reach out to those parents, to those students, to the new teachers who are going to be coming in to make sure that we have a plan that can roll out effectively before the new school year starts.”
Byrd-Bennett says every principal and parent in a closed school and a receiving school will be given a transition plan when she makes her final recommendations for closures March 31.
“Part of the transition plan that principal is going to be receiving will understand very specifically to their school, here are all of the resources that you’re getting,” said Byrd-Bennett. “Now, as you begin to think through your academic plan, how will you use them? How will you integrate them so that kids really get the best possible education?”
A key part of the transition plan for each school will be the safety plan announced today.
“What I want to ensure is that the egress and exit from children, from where they leave to get to their school, that we have safe passage for all of those children,” said Byrd-Bennett. “And that means we are going to have to intensify and increase the current resources that we have to ensure that.”
But skepticism remains high. Many parents, community members, and the Chicago Teachers Union are adamantly opposed to closing any schools. Byrd-Bennett says she understands the protest but has to move forward.
“I’m going to be ready,” she said of the March 31 deadline to make recommendations for school closings.
Once Byrd-Bennett announces her list, new community hearings will again be held. The school board then has until May 31 to make the final decisions on which schools will be closed.