Chicago School Closings a Blow to Parental Involvement?

Journalists are often criticized for supposedly focusing on "bad news" and ignoring the positive. Yet in reality, we're happy to report good news -- if the evidence backs it up.
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Any adult who was successful in school will likely remember that their parents played a defining role in that success. What happens during the roughly six-hour school day is only part of the learning equation. Who else but a parent or guardian will make sure children attend school and complete their homework?

Even parents who are not highly educated can help their children succeed by providing the right support and encouragement.

Yet, as our latest issue of Catalyst In Depth reports, parent engagement is shaping up as a weak link for the Chicago Public Schools' massive school closings. This year, 49 schools were shut down -- the most ever at a single time in a large urban school district.

Parent after parent interviewed for this issue expressed dissatisfaction and dismay about the rocky transition to new schools. They cited bus schedules that don't accommodate after-school activities, crowded classrooms, students feeling anxious and unwelcome. The problems are magnified because many parents were already notoriously distrustful of the district and fought against the closings.

The loss of veteran black teachers and principals, who understood the communities that were hardest hit by the closings, is also a factor. Some transferred to welcoming schools. Others who were dedicated to the mission of educating lower-income children did not and have decided to move on from CPS.

For the closings to be a success, students will have to get a better education in their new schools. That hasn't happened for the vast majority of students displaced by previous closings: They landed at schools no better than those they left.

This time around, the stakes are higher. Thousands more students were displaced, and many parents are angrier and more likely to simply give up on CPS and bolt to the suburbs or to private schools.

Not all families have the financial means to make these choices -- nor should they have to. Their tax dollars, and ours, are used to fund a school system that has a moral, and public, obligation to provide a good education for all kids, no matter their families' level of income.

The district often says it is accomplishing this goal by opening more charters and contract schools. But real neighborhood schools, freely available to any child in a community, are the bedrock of public education. Many parents and grassroots activists are against charter because they suspect CPS of relying on them because it's easier and cheaper than improving neighborhood schools. They're angry as they watch their school down the street dying on the vine as a result.

In 2009, the Consortium on Chicago School Research issued a report on the impact of school closings that started in 2004. The results were discouraging. The Consortium, a highly regarded institution run by the University of Chicago and known for issuing carefully worded reports that never go an inch beyond the evidence, stated its findings bluntly:

"Eight in 10 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students displaced by school closings transferred to schools ranking in the bottom half ... on standardized tests. However, because most displaced students transferred from one low-performing school to another, the move did not, on average, significantly affect student achievement."

Journalists are often criticized for supposedly focusing on "bad news" and ignoring the positive. Yet in reality, we're happy to report good news -- if the evidence backs it up.

Let's hope that by year's end that the evidence thus far proves wrong.

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