Many shun CPS' plan for 'welcoming' schools
CHICAGO (MCT) - Almost half the youngsters most affected by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's school shutdowns did not enroll this fall in the new schools where officials planned for them to go, records from Chicago Public Schools show.
Nearly 7,000 students in grades pre-kindergarten to seventh were enrolled last spring in 30 city elementary schools that have since been decommissioned and their buildings closed, according to records obtained by the Tribune under the Freedom of Information Act.
But more than 3,300 of those children - 48 percent - are not attending the "welcoming" schools designated to take them in this fall, records show.
Those facilities comprise the bulk of a sweeping and controversial consolidation push that Emanuel said would leave the cash-starved district slimmer, more educationally nimble and more cost effective. In all, 47 elementary school programs for nearly 12,000 students were closed, though the disruption was minimized for many students allowed to remain in several buildings that were renamed after being merged with other schools.
To cushion the blow, the cash-starved Chicago Public Schools poured $233 million into renovations and other upgrades aimed primarily at welcoming schools designated to take in displaced students from closed facilities, including spending on new iPads, air conditioning, computers labs, specialized education programs and accommodations for the disabled. Millions of dollars were also committed to safety programs at many of the official receiving schools, including increased police patrols and the hiring of 600 Safe Passage monitors to watch over children on their way to and from classes.
But the records, which tote up enrollment data from the early weeks of the current school term, show that a large number of displaced students voted with their feet and didn't go where the transition spending was concentrated. And several neighborhood schools with chronic facility needs that didn't share in the new resources are now coping with an unexpectedly large influx of students from closed facilities.
When West Pullman elementary closed, the fear of gang problems led Cynthia Patterson to send her 13-year-old son seven blocks to Metcalfe elementary rather than just two blocks to Haley school, which was designated to be the welcoming location.
"People want the best for their child, but just because they said the kids would be welcome doesn't mean you want them to go there," she said.
In all, Metcalfe took in 77 transferees from closed schools though it also has no facilities for the disabled and would cost more than $6 million to fully upgrade, records show.
Langford school in the Englewood neighborhood is now home to 89 students transferred from closed schools. District records show Langford lacks accommodations for disabled students and requires nearly $11 million in modernization work.
Neither school benefited from the special transition help, though both have more enrollees from closed schools than several of the official welcoming schools, records show.
At a groundbreaking ceremony for a new field house in Chinatown, Emanuel on Monday did not respond to a question about the lower-than-anticipated numbers of students enrolled in welcoming schools.
CPS has pledged extra financial aid to any school not designated as a welcoming school but nonetheless dealing with an influx of 25 or more students from a closed school, said Becky Carroll, a CPS spokeswoman. However, such schools do not share in Safe Passage programs.
"We have worked closely with and continue to monitor schools that received additional students from consolidated, underutilized schools and are poised to make adjustments to accommodate their needs," Carroll said. "I'm not aware of any situation however where there was a demonstrable need to expand Safe Passage to any of those schools."
In addition, under a new budgeting system this year, the more kids a school has, the more money it receives.
School officials tracked the whereabouts of students from closed schools as part of two enrollment snapshots taken in September, one on the 10th day of the new term and another on the 20th.
Different measures were released to different media outlets in recent days, and while the numbers contained slight variations, the overall results were similar.
Excluding eighth-graders likely to have graduated last spring, the closures hit 11,729 students in all, with 7,309 - about 62 percent - choosing to enroll in the welcoming school the district had designated for them. That percentage, which includes situations where students remained in the same building but got new teachers and staff, is still far below district predictions of around 80 percent.
But the participation rate lags even more for the subset of youngsters most inconvenienced, those who had to go to a new school building with a new set of teachers and administrators. Of the 6,947 students in that group, just 3,640 transferred to the same schools they were directed to by CPS.
There are a variety of reasons why so many displaced students went elsewhere. Some students and their parents worried about gang rivalries, others wanted classes closer to home, and still others chose better performing schools than the ones CPS had selected for them.
Officials planned for students from the closed Henson school in the Lawndale neighborhood to shift to Hughes Elementary, a 14-minute walk away along West 15th Street. But just 15 Henson students enrolled at Hughes, while nearly double that went to Penn elementary, which was not deemed a welcoming school.
In total, Penn this school year has had to absorb 45 new students from not just Hughes but other West Side school closings -- without sharing in most welcoming school resources.
"We should have had Safe Passage in place," said the Rev. Robin Hood, who coordinated the anti-violence group Ceasefire's North Lawndale operation from the Penn building for several years. "Penn doesn't have the resources, but they've got the kids."
In choosing to close West Pullman school, CPS designated its students to go to Haley elementary despite broadly expressed fears that children would get caught up in long-standing rivalries between gangs in both neighborhoods. West Pullman last spring had 249 students eligible to transfer to Haley this fall, but only 85 went there.
Most went elsewhere, including 66 who chose Metcalfe. "I want my child to live and be safe," said Patterson.
When CPS closed Paderewski school on the West Side, it said its mostly African-American student body of 150 should shift to either Cardenas or Castellanos schools, both overwhelmingly Hispanic. This fall, just 62 former Paderewski students enrolled at one of the two schools.
Darlene Williams, whose two daughters attended Paderewski, sent them to charter schools rather than the CPS choice. She said black parents raised concerns about potential racial conflict at public hearings last school year in front of CPS officials, but were ignored.
"They didn't take the time to integrate the community before they made a choice to say that Castellanos and Cardenas were the receiving schools," Williams said.
As welcoming schools, Castellanos and Cardenas benefited from enhanced security programs. But Safe Passage workers hired to watch over students at the two schools told the Tribune recently that there aren't many children to oversee.
The situation appears the same at Johnson school just west of Douglas Park. Johnson was designated the welcoming school for the now-shuttered Pope elementary, but out of 155 Pope students last year just 42 transferred to Johnson this fall.
Just four years ago, CPS designated Johnson a "turnaround" school and turned it over to the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a nonprofit that overhauls failing schools with financial help from CPS.
Over the summer, armed with a new designation as a welcoming school, Johnson benefited from another $1 million in improvements, including the installation of new window air-conditioning units to replace older units
"The mayor and CPS got this wrong," said Dwayne Truss, a board member from the parent group Raise Your Hand, which has long been opposed to school closings. "It wasn't a smart use of resources. They should've waited to see where these students would go. That way the resources and transition money could have followed those students."
- Tribune reporters David Heinzmann and Bill Ruthhart contributed.
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