Leif Ericson chicago school

Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Leif Ericson Scholastic Academy, 3600 W. 5th Avenue

Shortly the Chicago Public Schools board will vote on the largest proposed school closing in the nation, 50 schools in all. Yesterday, that number was 54, but four schools were spared the ax: Manierre Elementary, Jackson Elementary, Garvey Elementary, and Ericson Elementary. Here's a look at why these schools may have escaped.

Mahalia Jackson Elementary. The hearing officer, David Coar, kind of took it to CPS in his report on the closing of Jackson. One subject Coar hit on was the question of utilization when it comes to schools with a high percentage of special-ed students (Jackson's students are about 20 percent special ed); emphasis mine.

CPS has determined that Jackson is underutilized by rote application of the formula contained in the CPS space utilization standards. It assumes a ratio of instructional classrooms to ancillary rooms of roughly 3:1 (77% to 23%). Under the standards, a special education classroom is an ancillary room.

CPS has been explicit about this rote application: "CPS officials have admitted the formula does not take reduced special education class size requirements into account in the formula." And special ed class size makes a considerable difference. A classroom is fully utilized when it has 30 students (though up to 36, or 120 percent capacity, is considered efficient). Special ed students can only be in classes with a maximum of eight or 13 students, depending on the disability and/or the number of teachers. At Jackson, it looks like this:

As Ms. Ige pointed out at the public hearing, there can be no more than 13 students in the deaf and hard of hearing classrooms and only 6-8 in the autism rooms. Ms. Ige said that there are 44 classrooms at Jackson. Of that number, 10 are used for general education, 9 for special education, 9 for ancillary teachers and 6 rooms are used for the support team (including a social worker, councelor, an occupational therapist, a speech pathologist, an ideologist, a nurse, and a PBIS coach). 10 classrooms are not used.

Jackson has 302 students, 62 of whom are special ed. That leaves 240 non-special-ed students, or 24 per general-ed classroom. The 62 special-ed students average out to about seven per room. Coar concluded that Jackson is underutilized, but "the formula used is not appropriate for a school in which 20 percent of the students have special needs…. [B]y any count there are at least 10 unused classrooms at Jackson. That is underutilization, but not to the extent suggested by the application of the current standards."

Coar also noted that Jackson has air conditioners, has been recently renovated, and is ADA compliant, whereas Fort Dearborn, one of the receiving schools, has 22 (more than half empty) modular classrooms and "it is unclear… the extent to which costs will be incurred to make the facility ADA compliant.

Manierre Elementary. Mark Konkol of DNAInfo broke the news yesterday that Manierre was off the list, a school he's covered extensively; previously, he documented that just the proposed closure had "sparked gang-related threats on Facebook." But this was also notable:

In the case of Manierre, Byrd-Bennett determined that students at the school and the adjoining Ferguson Child Education Center benefit from too much private-sector support — funding from Target, Erickson Institute, DePaul University and the University of Michigan — to shut it down.

The Sun-Times reported that "safety concerns about sending children to Jenner were not at issue in Byrd-Bennett's decision."

Manierre is also in the middle of Old Town, near the former site of Cabrini-Green and enrolling students from the massive Marshall Field apartments. In other words, it's in a neighborhood that's likely to add population.

Leif Ericson Elementary. WBEZ's Linda Lutton profiled an Ericson math teacher who made the case that his school is basically average, "and in a district with a lot of problems, he can't figure out why you would close average."

I went deeper into the numbers, looking at Ericson versus its proposed receiving school. On balance Sumner is probably a better school, at least by the ISAT numbers, but it's a very close case, and Ericson has higher attendance numbers and higher utilization.

Garvey Elementary. This one's a bit more complicated. The Sun-Times reports that "Byrd-Bennett recognized Garvey as a model for social-emotional learning in the district, applauded for helping children develop empathy and problem-solving skills. And the Washington Heights neighborhood school had an unprecedented amount of community support during the closing process." Maybe she means this kid.

Asean Jackson, a nine-year-old at Garvey, wasn't the only community member to get behind his school. A number of parents and teachers made the statistical case that Garvey is better than the receiving school, Mt. Vernon. For instance, a parent named Marquetta Burns:

In 2010, 75.5 percent met or exceeded the ISAT at Garvey while only 63 percent met or exceeded at the welcoming school. In 2011, 78.7 percent met the ISAT at Garvey while only 72.9 percent met or exceeded at the welcoming school. In 2012, 77.3 percent met or exceeded the ISAT at Garvey while only 73.4 met at the welcoming school. The state says that Garvey is on academic year one [Garvey is on probation this year for the first time since 1997] while the welcoming school is on academic watch for nine years [Vernon has not been on probation in the past two years, but was on probation for five of the six years before that].

Yet Garvey is a Level 3 school while Vernon is a Level 2 school, in part because it's been improving its numbers in recent years. Trend and growth metrics are part of the levels. For instance: "Trend measures the difference between the school’s most recent score and the preceding three-year average. If the school does not have three years of historical data, a two-year average will be used." 

According to CPS's 2012 School Progress Report, Mt. Vernon was "below average" in "student performance," with 39 percent of students performing at or above the national average in reading and 26.5 in mathematics on Scantron tests. Garvey was also below average, but the numbers were 44.1 and 44.8. But Vernon had better growth: 64 percent making expected gains in reading, 61.4 in math, compared to 51 percent and 50 percent at Garvey.

Meanwhile, Garvey is ranked above average in "school culture and climate," with a "strong" rating in "supportive environment" and "ambitious instruction." Oh, and a "strong" score for safety. Vernon was rated as "weak" in safety, supportive environment, and ambitious instruction.

There are reasons to admire Vernon—it's made impressive improvement on the ISATs in recent years. But as a parent—just going on the CPS data—would you want a school that seemed to be improving greatly, or one with similar scores and much better ratings on school environment? The farther you drill down into the numbers, the more complex these decisions get, and CPS has to make 50 of them today.