An empty classroom in John B. Drake Elementary School. (Photography by Becky Vevea/WBEZ, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Learning process

A mixed picture develops from a study of the closure of 47 Chicago elementary schools.

In May 2013, after months of debate and deliberation, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced that it was closing 47 elementary schools across the city—for underperformance, underenrollment, or both—and the families of nearly 12,000 displaced students began the complicated task of finding new schools before the fall semester began. The students in closed schools were among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in the Chicago public school system. Most lived in poor neighborhoods; the vast majority were African American.

Last summer researchers from UChicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) set out to assess the effects of the upheaval. Analyzing CPS administrative data and interviewing 95 families in depth, they tracked where the students had ended up—looking at their new schools’ neighborhoods, achievement scores, poverty levels, and safety records. Researchers studied how parents had gone about deciding where to enroll their children, how they felt about the process, and how smoothly they’d been able to make their way through it. After the closings, had students ended up better off or worse? The findings have implications not only in Chicago but also for districts across the country. In cities like Detroit; New York; Philadelphia; Washington, DC; and Oakland, California, officials have in recent years closed half-empty or underperforming schools.

Released in January, the study offers a “mixed” picture, says Elaine M. Allensworth, Lewis-Sebring Director of CCSR. Most displaced students, 93 percent, transferred to schools that were rated higher in performance than the ones they’d been at before. But many of those schools were only marginally higher rated, and only 21 percent of students ended up in schools labeled “Level 1,” or in excellent standing—more than half of CPS schools are rated Level 1, but most are in affluent neighborhoods. (A 2009 CCSR study demonstrated that students can benefit from better schools, but only if they move to a much higher-quality school; otherwise the gains aren’t much.)

Perhaps most striking were CCSR’s findings on the complex constellation of factors that families had to take into account as they navigated the process of finding new schools, and that propelled or constrained their decisions in sometimes unexpected ways. At a public presentation at the Logan Center in late January, Molly Gordon, a senior researcher at CCSR and one of the authors of the report, showed a word cloud capturing the criteria that families had said were important to them. The biggest phrases that jumped out—reflecting the high frequency with which parents reported them—were “close to home” and “safe commute.” Another was “transportation costs.” Parents who couldn’t afford transit fare or to drive their children to school found their options limited to the neighborhood, and safety often trumped whatever else a school might have to offer.

Academic considerations and what constituted a “good school” also proved complicated. Sixty-six percent of students moved to the “welcoming schools,” designated by CPS to receive the displaced students—the schools were given extra resources to handle the influx. Students who wound up elsewhere often enrolled in schools rated lower than the welcoming schools. Researchers at CCSR wondered why. Safety and transportation costs were one answer. But talking to families, they found that in addition to test scores and CPS performance metrics, parents were weighing things like small class sizes, extracurricular offerings, individual attention from teachers, and the availability of special education programs (on which the displaced students as a whole rely at a disproportionate rate).

Gordon told the story of one mother who decided against sending her child to the designated welcoming school, even though it was rated Level 1, because other parents had told her it was not a good school. A year later, Gordon checked the numbers again and saw that the school had dropped to a Level 3, the lowest level. “There’s a little bit of a lag time in these performance policy ratings,” Gordon says. “Because it reflects the previous year’s test score data.” Grapevine knowledge came in real time.

Maintaining ties drove other decisions. Some parents needed to keep multiple siblings together, or wanted to keep their children with friends. One mother decided to send her child to the designated welcoming school only after she called the office there for information and the secretary from the closed school answered the phone. Hearing that many teachers and staff from the old school had moved there was a relief. “And the mother said, ‘That’s it. I’m sending my child there. Because my child will know people. People will know my child and my child’s needs.’”

Time also limited parents’ options. When the school closure announcement was made in May 2013—several months after the city intended—many of the better schools were already full, since applications and enrollment had started in December. Parents scrambled to figure out what possibilities remained. Some families told CCSR researchers that although CPS had provided information (sometimes a deluge of it) on the welcoming schools, information on where else they might send their children was not always available. Some parents believed they had no choice and that going to the welcoming school was mandatory.

Researchers at CCSR hope to study further the effects of the schools’ closure, both short and long term. It’s clear, Allensworth says, that CPS tried to get students into better-performing schools. How well did they do once they settled in? What were their relationships with teachers and peers like? How did the climate in the schools change?

“The fact that there’s still such strong emotions about this says that we need a lot more good information,” Allensworth says. “We need to know what happened, both good and bad, as a result of this policy. Because it is very likely that the district will close more schools in the future.” There’s still a lot to learn, she says, about school closings and how to make them go as smoothly as possible for students. And perhaps most importantly, how to raise the quality of existing schools in poor neighborhoods. “For me,” she says, “the study highlights the fact that we don’t have strong enough schools in the poorest neighborhoods, and I think we need to really think seriously about what it’s going to take to strengthen those schools.” Because ultimately that is the surer path to school improvement.