03/27/2013 01:21 pm ET Updated May 27, 2013

Chicago Public School Students Are Not Widgets, But They Are Pawns

At rallies, on the radio and at home; Chicago parents, students, teachers and their supporters have worried aloud about school closings. The Chicago Public Schools leadership, the school closing commission and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in response, use terms like "underused," point to a projected $1 billion deficit, and talk mostly in terms of numbers, as in "25,000 available seats." Other numbers bandied about both by leadership and their supporters are the number of students in the system: 400,000; the drop in enrollment: 34,000 (since 2003); the number of schools they think they should close: 61 and the distance children would have to travel to a new school which ranges from one mile to one and ½ miles depending on how many schools are closed. The Chicago Tribune's editorial board recently weighed in with more numbers stating, "It's important to remember that every dollar saved by not heating or illuminating a near-empty building is a dollar that can be allocated to...educating children."

As a former classroom teacher, the entire situation strikes me as one of those math problems delightfully described in the children's book, Math Curse, by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. In this fabulous and funny book, the teacher tells her student: "almost everything in life can be considered a math problem." With that in mind, everything, including snacks, dinner and how long it takes her to get ready for school does become a math exercise and in the child's mind, it's a curse. The good news is that she realizes she has the ability to solve a problem by thinking about it (using the knowledge she learned in school). The discovery that she can solve any math problem breaks the curse.

One way to break the math curse currently going on in Chicago would be for Chicago Public Schools and the mayor to realistically address the factors that will impact student learning, teacher effectiveness and community safety. Students are not widgets, but they have become pawns in what seems to be a simple math problem as presented by CPS, but is really a culture, community and citywide issue of how to create safe and effective schools for all students regardless of race, family income and geographic location.

To be sure, this is not an easy task. Years, millions of dollars and careers have been spent in Chicago trying to address just this issue. I have on my desk a book titled Successful School Restructuring from 1995, purchased when I became a school teacher in Cicero at a large, urban school with many of the same difficulties facing CPS today. Our solution at that school was to create a series of schools within the school, or teams, a model that has been used not only in Chicago but also around the country. Unlike charter schools where an outside operator takes over the school, this is a model of school reform from within. Within two years of establishing our team, we were able to improve student attendance, increase parent involvement and help our students change their test scores on standardized tests an average of two grade levels. Our model also depended our learning about the culture of our students and their families. We developed communication structures and learning opportunities, which complemented their traditions, realities and expectations instead of ignoring them. We did not have success with every student but we were able to make difference with the majority and this model was later adapted to develop an all freshman academy.

The authors of Successful School Restructuring conclude:

student learning can meet... high standards if educators and the public give students three kinds of support: teachers who practice authentic pedagogy, schools that build organizational community by strengthening professional community and external agencies and parents that support schools to achieve... high quality student learning...

Are there schools in Chicago which need change to achieve the first and second of these? Yes, there are CPS schools that in spite of years of reform still have shockingly high drop out rates and shockingly low test scores. At the same time, there are CPS schools based in neighborhoods, including those on the closing list, which have created a professional community and have dedicated, skilled teachers. An enormous part of the math equation ignored by nearly every report from the schools closing commission is the readiness of children for school, which includes food security, family security and neighborhood security.

I've often asked friends who complain about the "easy life" of teachers if they could imagine being responsible to supervise 125 workers a day, and not only their work, but knowing if they had any breakfast, if their family had a roof over their head, and if they had been threatened with violence on the way to work. At the elementary level, imagine not only supervising 30 young "workers" (the class size being promoted by CPS math) all day (with little or no breaks for you for lunch, the bathroom or anything else) and being responsible for them learning reading, writing, math, science, social studies (as well as arts and gym) along with technology, manners, public speaking and social skills.

The CPS equation ignores all of these variables as well as the variables of students having to cross gang lines; gangs which have become increasingly fractured and violent with increasingly potent weapons; having to travel at young ages on public transit which has also been cut so there are longer trips demanded or even on school buses but still for longer amounts of time (a mile in school bus time is not equivalent to the mile on a planning map); and having a school which is no longer connected to their neighborhood's center.

Instead of treating students, their families and their teachers as widgets, CPS and the Mayor should take the time to learn the real equations that will impact student learning and to be innovative. Why not think about so-called partially empty buildings as an opportunity to create a community arts center? Why not take the time to seriously examine the charter school movement (which has not had success across the board in improving student performance) and think about schools within schools instead of building new charter schools with public money? Why not take the math challenge and instead of seeing it as a curse, see it as an opportunity?