Austin resident Catherine Jones doesn’t want history to repeat itself.
Jones remembers the turmoil caused by Chicago Public Schools’ decision to close the former Austin Community Academy High School in 2007. Jones said students were sent to schools outside their community, and there was no notice about the school’s closing nor parent involvement in the decision. Jones’ son graduated from Austin in 2000.
Now she feels a similar fate could befall Douglass High School, 543 N. Waller.
Jones is not alone in her concerns regarding procedures used to close, turn-around or phase-out troubled schools. She was among a group of residents attending a public hearing Sept. 25 on the West Side to examine transparency and accountability in CPS school improvement plans.
Concerning Douglass, Jones said the school’s test scores are low and has an enrollment of 400, despite the capacity to hold 1000 students.
“We don’t know what is going on, but we know something is going to happen,” said Jones, a Douglass Local School Council member since 2003. “We as parents … have to demand that we are at the table when they are making these changes.”
The hearing took place at the Garfield Park Gold Dome, 100 N. Central Park and was part of an ongoing effort to gather community, parent and teacher input on school closings. Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, a newly-formed bipartisan group, hosted last Saturday’s hearing, one of three citywide hearings scheduled to take place.
The task force was the byproduct of state Rep. Cynthia Soto’s (4th) failed efforts to place a moratorium on school closings. Soto did not attend Saturday’s meeting, nor did any West Side elected officials. The hearings, according to the task force, aims to create a “master facilities plan,” or a framework, that outlines processes in closing schools.
Having that plan creates equity in how schools are closed, explained Valencia Rias-Winstead, of Designs for Change, one of several community groups comprising the task force. It would also, she added, set criteria for school closings and how resources are doled out to schools for facility improvement.
“We want to establish [criterion] so everybody knows where their school sits,” Rias-Winstead said.
Parents also expressed outrage over CPS procedures to close under-performing schools only to sink millions to rehab them and then turn the building over to a charter school.
That money, they argued, could go to provide services and academic support for troubled schools instead of privatizing public education. Teachers of one South Side school questioned CPS’ actions to close their building before its improvement plan fully got off the ground.
V. Davis, a former teacher at Deneen Elementary School, 7240 S. Wabash, said her school was two years into a new principal and a new curriculum before it became a turn around school, and that parent involvement increased and test scores started improving. But budget cuts saw its reading specialists axed after one year. According to Davis, CPS does not give the extra help to troubled schools as it does to those going through a turn-around process.
“I don’t feel we had a fair chance to show that the new process was working,” Davis said. “I think it should be a regular standard procedure that each school goes through before they (CPS) decide to turn it around.”