With Chicago Public Schools placing half of its schools on probation for low academic performance, CEO Jean-Claude Brizard proposed an aggressive reform plan to turn around 10 failing institutions, close two others and phase out of five more in an effort to improve educational outcomes for nearly 7,200 students.

Brizard called it a “problem” that a third of all CPS students sit in what he calls “lousy schools.” Many of these schools are concentrated in minority neighborhoods, which exacerbates the widening achievement gaps between black, white and Latino students, he said.

“If you take a look at the schools we are taking action on, they are chronically failing year after year,” Brizard said, noting that some schools have been on probation for as long as 14 years.

Brizard spoke with the editorial boards of the Austin Weekly News and the Chicago Journal about his reform plans hours before those plans went public on Nov. 30.

Under the proposed plan, Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a private, not-for-profit organization, will oversee the turnaround of six of the 10 schools while CPS’ Office of School Improvement will oversee the remaining of four.

The plans also call for the closure of two South Side elementary schools, Simon Guggenheim, 7141 S. Morgan, and Florence B. Price, 4351 S. Drexel Blvd. These schools have been on probation for five and four years, respectively. According to CPS, Guggenheim is the lowest-performing school in the state.

CPS plans to phase out two elementary schools, Julia C. Lathrope, 1440 S. Christiana and Walter Reed, 6350 S. Stewart. Additionally, three high schools, Best Practice High School, 2040 W. Adams; Walter H. Dyett, 555 E. 51st St.; and Richard T. Crane, 2245 W. Jackson, will be phased out.

Crane is being phased out since only 17 percent of neighborhood students attend the school and Best Practice has no students enrolled.

Brizard’s school reform plan reflects a different approach than past administrations. His school action plan is focused more on turnarounds than school closures, which allows for CPS to overhaul schools without displacing students. This demonstrates a more prudent approach to improving schools that “makes sense for kids,” Brizard said.

He noted no action was taken on schools that fit the broad’s criteria for closure or turnaround if “we cannot find a better place for kids to go to.” Some school actions were postponed because of capacity issues or security concerns, for example, if students have to cross gang borders to get to a new school. Brizard called it a painful decision to still have students exist in “a school environment that is not working.”

“This was not focused on efficiencies. This was focused on finding quality,” he said. “I got neighborhoods where I need to take actions on schools, but don’t have something better to offer kids.”

Officials from the Chicago Teachers Union called Brizard’s school turnaround plan “disruptive” to students. CTU’s Norine Gutenkanst said terminating teachers and staff “all the way down to the lunchroom staff and engineers” breaks the fabric that already exists in schools. The new staff that comes in, she added, often does not look like the students attending the school nor do they come from the neighborhood.

“We think that is a real problem,” said Gutenkanst, CTU’s coordinator of the organizing department.

CPS Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso said the decisions to close or phase out schools were not made lightly. She said CPS had to act “with urgency and with courage,” to improve schools that are at the lowest assessments or have seen incremental growth over the years.

“These are all tough decisions, but we absolutely expect that they would deliver the results that we need for kids in a far more aggressive timeline than the trajectory some of these schools have been on, which is 1 or 2 percent a year,” Donoso said.

However, the decision to contract AUSL to overhaul six schools has come under fire. Critics and the union contend the $20 million CPS plans to give AUSL to turnaround schools should be given to the failing schools themselves.

Also questions arose about favoritism in awarding AUSL so many schools, since the Board of Education’s president, David Vitale, has strong ties to the company. The six schools represent the largest number of turnaround schools AUSL has taken in a single year. AUSL oversees 12 turnaround schools all together. 

“What we challenge is that the board is now saying that we are going to invest in a turnaround school,” Gutenkanst said. “We are going to pour millions of dollars into this school now, but we’re wondering where was the millions of dollars before and why wasn’t it invested before?”

Many schools are facing staff cuts when AUSL’s model is to put two teachers in every classroom, she said, adding that CPS has been divesting in schools. Gutenkanst also contends AUSL schools don’t perform better than neighborhood schools and have a higher turnover rate than traditional schools.

“If CPS invested in these schools with people who have relationships with parents, who have knowledge of the kids and certainly deep knowledge of the curriculum, we would be able to do quite a lot, if those investments were made in our neighborhood schools right now,” Gutenkanst said.

Brizard defended the group, saying AUSL has a track record in tuning around schools. In 2011, AUSL elementary school students had an 8 percent growth in ISAT scores, more than double the district average growth of 3.8 percent. Howe Elementary, 720 N. Lorel Ave., an AUSL school, saw a 25.5 percentage point increase on ISAT score between 2010 and 2011.

He called AUSL a leader in training principals and teachers in turning toxic environments into a much better ones.

“It is a very different kind of team walking into a school to take over a failing entity,” he said.

Brizard said he wasn’t scapegoating teachers of the failing schools. Identifying a school for turnaround, Brizard said, should in no way imply that there teachers there are incompetent.

“We have to be careful not to blame teachers for a school’s failures,” he said. “School failure is a combination of a lot of things. It’s leadership. It’s CPS itself. It’s everything. It is all the above. No one group is ever responsible for failure, which is why you change the entire dynamic of the building as much as you can. You never blame kids for school failure.”

CPS will be holding several more public meetings on its school action plans, before the board votes on the proposal in February.