Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett agrees with a school-closing panel’s recommendation not to shutter underutilized high schools, high-performing schools or ones in the process of adding a grade next year.
That leaves about a dozen other schools in Austin that are below capacity and could face closure, according to an AustinTalks analysis of CPS data.
Fourteen out of Austin’s 19 public elementary and middle schools are underutilized.
Just five of Austin’s schools– Howe, Leland, Hay and two charters, Catalyst Circle Rock and Plato Learning Academy— are effectively utilized, according to CPS standards, and will likely not be on the chopping block.
CPS considers schools underutilized when they have an enrollment of less than 80 percent of its ideal capacity, which is the number of homeroom classrooms multiplied by 30 students.
But the CPS numbers have come under fire by the group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, which did its own analysis of underused schools recently and found CPS’ formula “works to both exaggerate underutilization and underreport overcrowding.”
According to the Raise Your Hand “Apples to Apples” analysis, 25 students multiplied by the number of homeroom classrooms is an ideal class size.
Byrd-Bennett wrote in a Jan. 8 letter to Raise Your Hand that CPS does not agree that the homeroom multiplier should be changed from 30 to 25.
Too many seats, too little students
And Austin’s remaining schools aren’t off the hook yet either.
The recently opened ACT is 18 percent utilized and has the lowest enrollment of all Austin schools. The charter school will likely be spared, however, because fifth-graders started at the school in August, and it’s in the process of adding up to the eighth grade.
Under state law, CPS doesn’t have the ability to close charter schools based on utilization, said CPS spokeswoman Kalyn Belsha.
CPS has a rigorous process in place for charter contract renewals that looks at academics, compliance and fiscal management to determine the school’s renewal status recommendation and conditions for renewal, Belsha added.
Across the city, CPS says it has too many seats with too little students and a looming $1 billion deficit.
About 50 percent of all CPS schools are underutilized and nearly 140 are more than half-empty, according to CPS.
But a school’s utilization rate is only one of several factors that CPS will take into consideration when determining which schools to close to address its utilization crisis, CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said in an email.
“There are many other factors that will play an important role in this process, including safety and security, facility quality and school programming,” Ziegler wrote.
Valerie Leonard, a West Side education activist and an organizer for the North Lawndale Alliance, is urging CPS to “take a breather” before rushing to shut down underutilized schools.
“I’m hearing all kinds of flaws in the data at every meeting I go to,” she said. “I’m hearing discrepancies in the data we have access to, and they don’t seem to be willing to make changes to their methodology, and that’s concerning to me.”
Raise Your Hand’s analysis shows a few of CPS’ underutilized schools in Austin —Emmet, Lovett and Young – should actually be considered efficiently utilized. The analysis also found CPS under-reported the number of homerooms at Clark and McNair.
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said in an email that CPS faces a “very real and daunting utilization crisis” due in large part to a significant drop in population in Chicago during the last 10 years.
“We simply have too many buildings and too few children, which is stretching our limited resources much too thin,” Carroll wrote. “By right-sizing the district’s footprint, we will be able to better redirect our limited resources and invest in programs that will give all of our children a more well-rounded, high-quality education that they deserve.”
But Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said she disputes CPS’ assertion that the district has lost more than 140,000 students in the last decade.
“I have been (a) teacher for 25 years, and I can tell you first hand there were never 500,000 students enrolled in public schools during that time,” Lewis said in a press release. “Their use of numbers is disingenuous across the board and this crisis is a manufactured one.”
Leonard said if there was a government body like the Illinois Education Facilities Planning Board to regulate the development and expansion of schools in the state, CPS might not have opened so many, which has led to the district’s utilization problem, she added.
There is a similar entity in place, the Illinois Health Facilities and Service Review Board, that regulates the development of state hospitals and other health facilities.
Leonard, who is also a project manager and nonprofit compliance expert, said she worked on a major expansion project for Mount Sinai Health System in the past, and that got her thinking about a planning board that could regulate the expansion of state schools.
Leonard also suggested CPS rent out underutilized school space to nonprofits for community centers while also raising money through rents to combat its deficit.
What about the other schools?
In addition to keeping high schools and high-performing schools off the table, CPS’ utilization commission also recommended in its early report that CPS not close schools that are close to efficient utilization, have more than 600 students, have recently experienced a significant school action or are Level 2 academic performers that are “on the rise.”
A Level 1 rating is the district’s highest academic level based on Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) performance.
Over the next few weeks, Byrd-Bennett and her team will consider the panel’s final recommendations, according to a CPS press release.
If Byrd-Bennett accepts some or all of the remaining recommendations from the commission, Brunson, Spencer and Young– all considered underutilized but with an enrollment of more than 600– could be off the list.
But a handful of Austin schools may not fit the panel’s recommendations.
Also not yet safe is Armstrong, a Level 2 on probation.
A recent Chicago-Sun Times analysis shows Armstrong, Brunson, DePriest, Emmet, Key, Lewis, May, McNair, Nash, Spencer and Young most likely to be considered for closing in Austin.
The utilization commission will offer its final school consolidation recommendations in early March.
CPS will hold two community meetings in each school network, including Austin-North Lawndale, for community input beginning Jan. 28.
The community meetings “are meant to give our parents and school communities additional opportunities to provide us with more granular information about their individual schools that our own data may not have captured,” wrote CPS spokeswoman Ziegler.
Austin-North Lawndale’s first meeting will be Jan. 31 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Friendship Baptist Church, 5200 W. Jackson Blvd.
The second meeting is Feb. 13 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Greater Galilee Baptist Church, 1308 S. Independence Blvd.
At February’s meeting, CPS promises it will provide a list of schools based on the commission’s recommendations as defined by CPS that way communities can provide input about the remaining schools that could be closed.
Some community members from Austin have been attending the Board of Education’s monthly meetings. The next meeting is Jan. 23 at 10:30 a.m. at CPS’ headquarters, 125 S. Clark Street on the 5th floor.