Chicago Public Schools taking a lesson from the past in next round of school closures
- The Chicago Board of Education's decision in 2013 to close 49 elementary schools and one high school led to students falling about two months behind in math performance in the long-term, according to The74.
- Now, as the end of a five-year moratorium on additional closures approaches, the district is preparing to shut down several high schools due to dwindling enrollment. Despite local concerns over a repeat of the 2013 setbacks for students, with some high schools having only 30 freshmen, future closures seem inevitable.
- Although past research has been mixed, experts generally believe that students can benefit academically from being relocated to a better school (which the majority of the "welcoming schools" in Chicago were). But the process through which the migration is implemented matters, and Chicago school leaders are taking a lesson from mistakes of the mass closures of 2013. Instead of shutting the schools down immediately, the plan has current students remaining enrolled until this year’s freshmen graduate.
The fact that the 2013 closures came after a drawn-out process did not help outcomes. Students and staff feeling in limbo for just about an entire school year affected test scores, which were already showing signs of decline before the decision was formally finalized. And by the time it was, in May, little time was left to properly plan for a smooth migration. The hasty exodus left students and adults feeling emotionally unsettled, and the incoming students had a hard time making new friends.
Funds from the district for welcoming events, as well as extra support staffers, were helpful. Still, even staff members and administrators at the welcoming schools sometimes had to move rooms and offices, and teaching materials were lost in the frenzy. Weeks of instructional time were lost.
When consolidating schools, especially on a large scale, allowing enough time to thoroughly plan out the migration is key; there is more than just logistics involved. Every school has a culture. When trying to merge one community with another of a different culture, steps need to be taken to thwart an "us and them" mentality. These situations also call for ongoing and multiple forms of communication with families to ease their concerns.
Shuttering a "failing school" is not a magic bullet. Students in Baton Rouge and Milwaukee were hurt by school closures there, most likely due to the stress and instability during the period of the switch, but also the quality of the new schools. Deciding to shut down a school based on limited data is risky. Most researchers recommend evaluating prospective welcoming schools by the students’ test score growth. Focusing solely on test scores doesn't convey overall school quality.