By Curtis Black
Homeless students are more than twice as likely than others to be impacted by Mayor Emanuel’s school closings, according to an analysis by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
And if plans for transitioning homeless students are any indication, CPS preparations for school closings are far behind where they’ve been at this point in previous years — and far behind where they need to be.
The 3,900 homeless students who would be impacted if the school board approves all proposed mergers, turnarounds and co-locations represent 8.5 percent of impacted students — more than twice the share of homeless students citywide, which CPS reports as 4 percent, according to CCH.
The 1,400 homeless students displaced from closing schools represents an even higher proportion — 8.7 percent of students subject to displacement.
CCH’s Law Project has assisted homeless students impacted by school closures since 2004, and “CPS has never demonstrated its ability to successfully serve students transitioning to new schools,” said Patricia Nix-Hodes, the coalition’s associate legal director. “We have seen students lost in the process as well as students at risk of increased violence.
“Even on a much smaller scale, receiving schools have not been adequately prepared,” Nix-Hodes said. “Students have arrived to new schools without enough desks, books or staff. School records have failed to arrive in a timely manner. Adequate transportation has not been provided to get students to the new school.
“It is inconceivable that CPS will be able to provide all impacted with better school choices and meaningful transition and transportation services, especially with the final announcements taking place so late in the school year.”
Learning from the past?
But although current CPS leaders claim they’ve learned from the failures of past school closings, preparations this year are far behind previous years, said Laurene Heybach, director of the coalition’s law project.
The CCH Law Project represents homeless students under a 2000 court order establishing CPS’s responsiblity to provide them with access to schools. In 2004 CCH went to court to force CPS to apply the protections in school closings.
Since then CPS has provided CCH with a list of homeless students that would be affected by closings at the time school actions were proposed, generally by January (and by December under the new state facilities law, a deadline Emanuel leaned on the General Assembly to extend this year).
The coalition would do outreach with families, apprise them of their rights to transitional services and transportation, and provide counseling to help them choose the right school for their children, which could be different than the designated receiving school for homeless families.
“It’s a massive amount of information if parents are going to be given a choice,” Heybach said. “It’s important to have someone help them sort through their options.”
This year CCH has yet to get such a list, Heybach said. “This year we’re being told we won’t get a list until after the school board votes,” she said. “We feel like they’re cutting off a community resource.”
They’re also telescoping a process in which families had several months to discuss options and visit schools into a single week. Families with students in schools approved for closure by the board next Wednesday will have from May 23 to May 31 to select a receiving school. (Schools will be closed on May 27 for Memorial Day.)
And last week CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett sent a letter to principals saying any school “that has space” will have to accept any student from a closing school who requests admission next week, Raise Your Hand reports.
“There’s still no list of which schools have room,” said Heybach. “It’s utter chaos. Everything’s in flux. They’re making it up as they go.”
Also long before this point in previous years, CPS had provided parents of homeless children with a detailed letter of summer programs to help them transition to new schools. “All the parent wanted something for the summer,” said Heybach.
This year that information is not available.
“If the [new] school is better, shouldn’t they have some academic support to prepare for it, shouldn’t they have some social support to prepare for the transition?” asked Heybach. “Why isn’t anyone addressing academic and social supports?
“For any person who cares about improving educational outcomes, this makes no sense,” she said. “It’s just not what any educational professional, any teacher or social worker, would ever support as a way to organize the most massive school closing in U.S. history.”
That may be why the Broad Foundation recommends an 18-month process for closing schools, with six months of community engagement preceding the announcement of a list of school closures.
Under their recommended schedule, an initial list of closings would have released in October and finalized in December.
Student reassignment, including multiple meetings were families can learn about the reassignment process, would take place over four months, from December to March. Four months would be allowed for schools to revise their enrollment projections and budgets.
It may also be why Byrd-Bennett’s commission on school closings recommended taking two years for the closings.
As an anonymous commission member told the Sun Times in March, “They don’t have the expertise to accomplish that [closing 50 schools] in such a short timeframe. When they closed down as many as 12 schools, it was a disaster.”