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Chicago School Closures Led to Achievement Declines, Uncertainty Among Students and Staff

By Guest Blogger Sasha Jones

In the hopes of consolidating resources, urban school districts nationwide have chosen to close the doors of their under-enrolled schools, displacing large numbers of low-income students and students of color. Facing a $1 billion deficit in May 2013, Chicago Public Schools did the same.

In the largest mass school closure to date, the Chicago Board of Education voted that year to close 49 elementary schools and one high school program located in an elementary school—a vote that displaced nearly 12,000 students in all.

Although funding was the primary reason for school closures, city and district officials hoped that students would be placed into higher-performing schools with better academic opportunities. Critics, including the Chicago Teachers Union, argued that the school closures would disenfranchise black neighborhoods and overwhelm "welcoming schools" with large enrollment increases.

Now, in a report by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, researchers suss out what really happened. In a nutshell, they say the closings sowed uncertainty among school officials, while students affected by closures experienced negative learning effects.

Teachers, Staff Feel Unprepared and Disorganized

Focusing on the short-term and multi-year impacts of school closures on students' academic, behavioral, and other outcomes, the research shows that school leaders had just a few months to balance their financial budgets with the ambiguity of how students would enroll in new schools.

With the 2013-2014 school year starting at the end of August, school staff in an estimated 95 schools were given two months to prepare to move. This included packing up supplies and furniture, hiring new staff, and preparing school buildings for an increase in students.

Many teachers reported that they felt unprepared at the start of the school year, having lost school supplies and materials in the move. Some said that unpacking, cleaning, and preparing the space physically took time away from instructional planning and relationship-building in their new communities.

To reconcile, the district provided extra funds and technology during the first year of the merger. Although some of these resources were lost due to budget cuts in following years, some schools were able to sustain new STEM, International Baccalaureate and Safe Passage programs. Started in 2009, the Safe Passage program recruits school staff and community volunteers to patrol Chicago's streets to ensure student safety during school commutes. In 2012, 37 schools participated, a number that more than doubled when 51 new schools were added to that mix in the wake of the closures. 

Transfer Rates Increase, Test Scores Slip Among Students

The research found that students also faced newfound challenges following school closures. In fall 2013, 21 percent of students in the welcoming schools did not return to their schools. Much of this exodus came among students attending the 14 welcoming schools that were forced to relocate themselves as student populations bulged and shifted. The families in those schools were more likely to consider transferring to different districts as a result. 

The largest impact was on students from closed schools, who experienced lower test scores than what was expected based on their previous achievement and research. Reading test scores declined initially, but returned to expected levels the second year following the closures. However, math scores failed to rebound. Students from closed schools were two months behind in math, a trend that continued four years after the school closures.

School absences, suspensions, and core GPA did not see significant changes. One exception was among students who were in grades 3-5 the year of the announcement. They saw more of a negative decrease in their core GPA than any other group.

University of Chicago researchers hypothesize that these negative effects were a result of students and staff coming "into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open." On the other hand, the staff members who were already in welcoming schools felt unsupported to serve the new population and address the divisions that formed.

Previous research shows that most students displaced by closures do not end up in better schools than those left behind, but, for those who do manage to land in better schools, their academic progress outpaces that of students left in the low-performing schools that remain open.

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