CPS chief agrees high schools should not be closed

Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett agrees with a panel on school closings that high schools should be off the table as the district prepares to shut down a large number of buildings, a CPS spokeswoman said.

Byrd-Bennett’s official response to the preliminary report of the Commission on School Utilization could come as soon as this week, and with her response, the district also is expected to a release a narrower list of underenrolled schools that could be targeted.

Speculation on which schools will be closed has been worrying parents and community groups since the district in December said it was working from a list of 330 schools that are underenrolled. Far fewer schools are expected to be shut down. Sources in September said Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration was looking at shuttering 80 to 120 schools.

Byrd-Bennett “felt very aligned and comfortable” with the commission’s recommendation not to close high schools because it could force students to cross gang boundaries or face rival gangs in new buildings, as well as with the panel’s suggestion that the best-performing “Level 1″ schools be spared even if they are underenrolled, district spokeswoman Becky Carroll said.

After winning a four-month extension from the state Legislature on the deadline for releasing a list of school closings, CPS has to release a final list of school closings by March 31. The commission will issue its final recommendations earlier that month.

The commission held several community hearings on school closings at the end of last year, and CPS officials will begin a round of at least 28 hearings Jan. 28.

Commission members will speak with local school councils of targeted schools as well as community action councils, neighborhood groups that focus on schools. When a final list of school closings is released at the end of March, three hearings will be held for each school on the list.

“It is critical that the community has the chance to give us their feedback on individual schools, and we want to provide them with that opportunity,” Byrd-Bennett said in a statement.

The Chicago Teachers Union is against school closings and has called for a moratorium until the policy can be further studied. On Friday union President Karen Lewis said, though, she at least appreciated the discussions that were leading to the list gradually being defined.

“This is a bad policy that destroys communities,” Lewis said. “But if you’re going to consolidate schools for underenrollment, there’s a better way to do that. There’s stuff you really need to include like having staff following children to their new schools so children don’t feel abandoned.”

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune reporter

nahmed@tribune.com

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