03/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Carpenter Case: School Reprieves Raise More Questions

The announcement by CPS chief Ron Huberman that six schools are being removed from the CPS hit list was welcome news to those communities, but it raises more questions than it answers.

Leave aside the question of whether targeting neighborhood schools, moving children around and firing teachers wholesale serves the interests of education or rather other agendas, like privatization and gentrification, as critics argue.

Why were those six chosen? Many of the reasons given by CPS for saving them would have been apparent had a thorough assessment been done before the actions against them were proposed. In the mad scramble between last month's announcement of proposed closings and "turnarounds" and Wednesday's board meeting, these schools seem to have gotten their case across. (Last year, according to George Schmidt of Substance, hearing officers' reports were not even available for all schools under consideration when the board voted.)

But why, out of all the small and struggling schools in the district, were they and sixteen others the ones put on that list in the first place? Would more attention to detail have spared some of the other schools?

A study of the CPS school takeover process released last week by UIC researchers (pdf) included case studies of three schools. Two of them, Peabody and Holmes, were granted reprieves by Huberman yesterday; one, Carpenter Elementary, wasn't.

By CPS's method of measuring "design capacity," Carpenter has a space utilization rate of 23 percent. But according to the study, CPS does not account for smaller class sizes mandated for special education and English learning classes, nor does it consider space designed for classrooms that is used for educational enrichment programs CPS itself promotes, including technology literacy, hands-on science, arts activities, and parent involvement.

Carpenter has a student body that includes 14 percent English language learners and 28 percent students with disabilities, including large groups with hearing impairments or severe cognitive disabilities. The school is dedicated to providing quality education in the least restrictive environment. It's part of the Hearing Impairment Cluster program -- and CPS has spent millions on upgrades to the school including facilities to help children with hearing impairments.

Carpenter integrates arts throughout its curriculum, with programs provided by the Joffrey Ballet and Adventure Stage theater company, and last month the school mounted its first musical production, "Alice in Wonderland." It was "a model of inclusion" according to the study, with students with hearing impairments and other special needs in major singing roles.

According to the study: "The proposed receiving schools are not equipped in the same ways to serve Carpenter's students with disabilities and are likely to impinge on students' lawful rights to a quality education in the least restrictive environment." The main receiving school, Otis, is an ancient building with millions of dollars of unfunded capital needs.

Remarkably, the researchers report, CPS's estimate of Carpenter's utilization rate did not include the fact that Ogden Elementary has been using one floor of the school building for overflow from its Gold Coast school for two years. Ogden is even using four classrooms for offices. (And the politically influential constituency of Ogden apparently has its eyes on the entire Carpenter building.)

The study notes other factors CPS doesn't take into account in other schools: rooms not designed as classrooms (such as gymnasiums and closets) but used to hold classes aren't considered; mobile units and other temporary space isn't taken into account. The researchers propose an "educationally appropriate" enrollment standard that looks closely at how school space is actually being used.

Carpenter has computer and science labs and a dance studio. It holds classes after school and on Saturdays. It has a high level of parent involvement -- encouraged in part with ESL and computer classes and other activities for family members.

It serves low-income students, many with special needs, and it is steadily improving academically. "Carpenter is an example of the kind of school CPS says they want," according to the study.

That's the kind of assessment that should be done at every school CPS wants to take over.

Instead there is a last-minute announcement of a list of targeted schools, with hearings held within a couple weeks, where CPS officials won't answer questions. The evaluation binder presented by CPS to the hearing officer isn't available to the public, or even to school staff. One principal asked for a copy and was told to file a freedom of information request.

As school reformers have advocated for years (see 2-9-09 Newstip) -- and as a bill by State Representative Cynthia Soto would require -- CPS needs a comprehensive school facilities plan to ensure equitable distribution of resources and public oversight and accountability. Without that, all these decisions have an aura of illegitimacy.

Originally posted at Community Media Workshop's Newstips blog.