Valerie LeonardWest Side education activist

A school’s utilization rate is only one of several factors that CPS will take into consideration when determining which schools to close to address its utilization crisis, CPS spokesperson Robyn Ziegler said in an email.

“There are many other factors that will play an important role in this process, including safety and security, facility quality and school programming,” Ziegler wrote.

Valerie Leonard, a West Side education activist and an organizer for the North Lawndale Alliance, is urging CPS to “take a breather” before rushing to shut down underutilized schools.

“I’m hearing all kinds of flaws in the data at every meeting I go to,” she said. “I’m hearing discrepancies in the data we have access to, and they don’t seem to be willing to make changes to their methodology, and that’s concerning to me.”

Raise Your Hand’s analysis shows a few of CPS’ underutilized schools in Austin —Emmet, Lovett and Young — should actually be considered efficiently utilized. The analysis also found that CPS under-reported the number of homerooms at Clark and McNair.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said in an email that CPS faces a “very real and daunting utilization crisis,” due in large part to a significant drop in population in Chicago during the last 10 years.

“We simply have too many buildings and too few children, which is stretching our limited resources much too thin,” Carroll wrote. “By right-sizing the district’s footprint, we will be able to better redirect our limited resources and invest in programs that will give all of our children a more well-rounded, high-quality education that they deserve.”

But Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said she disputes CPS’ assertion that the district has lost more than 140,000 students in the last decade.

“I have been a teacher for 25 years, and I can tell you firsthand there were never 500,000 students enrolled in public schools during that time,” Lewis said in a press release. “Their use of numbers is disingenuous across the board and this crisis is a manufactured one.”

Leonard said if there was a government body like the Illinois Education Facilities Planning Board to regulate the development and expansion of schools in the state, CPS might not have opened so many, which led to the district’s utilization problem, she added.

There is a similar entity in place, the Illinois Health Facilities and Service Review Board, that regulates the development of state hospitals and other health facilities.

Leonard, who is also a project manager and nonprofit compliance expert, said she worked on a major expansion project for Mount Sinai Health System in the past, and that got her thinking about a planning board that could regulate the expansion of state schools.

New York has a similar agency in place that regulates school development. And a handful of other states also have school planning departments.

Leonard suggested that CPS rent out underutilized school space to nonprofits for community centers while also raising money through rents to combat its deficit.

What about the other schools?

In addition to keeping high schools and high-performing schools off the table, CPS’ utilization commission also recommended in its early report that CPS not close schools that are close to efficient utilization, have more than 600 students, have recently experienced a significant school action or are Level 2 academic performers but “on the rise.”

A Level 1 rating is the district’s highest academic level, based on Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) performance.

Over the next few weeks, Byrd-Bennett and her team will consider the panel’s final recommendations, according to a CPS press release.

If Byrd-Bennett accepts some or all of the remaining recommendations from the commission, Brunson, Spencer and Young — all considered underutilized but with an enrollment of more than 600 — could be off the list.

And Nash might be in the clear, too, because it experienced a school action last year when the Chicago Board of Education OK’d its merger of school space with ACT.

But a handful of Austin schools may not survive the cut.

Austin’s five underutilized schools on probation and with the lowest Level 3 academic performance rating are Lewis, McNair, May, Brunson and Emmett.

Also not yet safe is Armstrong, a Level 2 on probation.

Key, Spencer, Young and DePriest are also underutilized and Level 2 performers but not on probation.

A recent Chicago-Sun Times analysis shows Armstrong, Brunson, DePriest, Emmet, Key, Lewis, May, McNair, Nash, Spencer and Young are most likely to be considered for closing in Austin.

The utilization commission will offer its final school consolidation recommendations in early March.

CPS will hold two community meetings, which “are meant to give our parents and school communities additional opportunities to provide us with more granular information about their individual schools that our own data may not have captured,” wrote CPS spokesperson Ziegler.

If you go

  • Austin-North Lawndale's first meeting: Jan. 31 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Friendship Baptist Church, 5200 W. Jackson Blvd. Second meeting is Feb. 13 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Greater Galilee Baptist Church, 1308 S. Independence Blvd.
  • At February's meeting, CPS promises it will provide a list of schools based on the commission's recommendations; that way communities can provide input about the remaining schools that could be closed.