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The Early Results From Chicago’s School Closings Are Mixed

When Chicago closed 47 schools, it directed kids towards better-performing “welcoming schools"—some with considerably higher ratings, some slightly better. Not all parents took them up on the offer, for a variety of reasons.

The Granville T. Woods Math & Science Academy in West Englewood, closed in 2013   Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

When the city decided to go through the difficult and controversial process of closing 47 schools, its stated goal was to get students into better-peforming schools, by the district’s metrics. According to a new report from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, it worked, at least on the most basic level—though not as well as the city would have hoped, and raising questions as to whether the shift to better schools was sufficient.

For example, here’s the birds’-eye view.

There are a couple ways of looking at this. One is that lots of students ended up in higher-rated schools: by the report’s count, 93 percent.

Another is that fewer students went to higher-performing schools than the plan intended by way of selecting welcoming schools. If everyone went to their welcoming schools, 27 percent of students would have ended up in Level 1 schools, and 43 percent in Level 2. Instead, those percentages both fell, and more students ended up in Level 3 schools than per the welcoming-school plan.

So not only did a merely modest percentage of students end up in the best-performing schools, that percentage fell short of the city’s effort. And this is important for reasons suggested by prior CCSR research, as Sarah Karp notes:

The distinction between the two categories–better performing and top performing–is important. The Consortium’s much-cited 2009 study on past school closings found that only those students who landed at top schools after a closing experienced substantial academic improvement. Students who went to schools that were only somewhat better didn’t improve much academically.

What happened? Life. Levels weren’t the only criterion for parents. One of the useful things about the study is that it surveys parents, if a fairly small sample, on what those criteria were. Performance ratings were, indeed, important; but they were mixed in with a lot of other obvious desires, which the researchers turned into a word cloud to show the relative significance.

And there’s a balance there. Logistics is the big one: “close to home,” “safe commute,” and “transportation costs” are huge. Which makes sense: the crime rate in the neighborhoods in which closed schools were located was 23 per 100, compared to 13 per 100 for all K-7 CPS students. The percent of students receiving a free- or reduced-price lunch was 95 percent, compared to 85 percent district-wide. Safety and economic considerations led many of the families the researchers talked to towards lower-rated schools: “Although these parents also talked about wanting schools that met their children’s academic needs, distance was prioritized over other considerations—oftentimes because of safety concerns.”

Next: family connections, “closed school students transferred,” “closed school staff transferred.” Maintaining family and social connections matters—we know this from the dispersal of public-housing residents, too. As the authors explain:

Having the continuity of care and familiarity with the closed school staff in the new environment was particularly important for families with special needs children. Several interviewees said that they picked the designated welcoming school primarily because the closed school’s special education teachers would be at the new school. These families worried less about getting the necessary supports and services in the new school if they had the same teachers or support personnel than they would have with unfamiliar staff. Having that personal connection put their minds at ease.

Academics was a factor, but not CPS levels alone:

One interviewee, for example, spent time on the CPS website researching the designated welcoming school and perceived the school to be on a downward trajectory, noting that the school “hasn’t been really a good school since 2008, maybe, or 9. I think those are their highest test scores.” This welcoming school’s policy points actually were on a downward trajectory over the years, and this parent noticed the trend.

Below the top-level numbers, there’s a lot going on—the thousands of individual, rational decisions that parents had to make within their own, much more complicated metrics.

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