This week, Fourth Ward Alderman Will Burns (A.B. ’95, A.M. ’98) announced that he did “not oppose” the closure of Miriam G. Canter Middle School in Kenwood, one of 54 schools in the city that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has proposed closing at the end of this year to help make up the system’s nearly $1 billion deficit. Burns, who has worked to keep other schools in his constituencies open in the past, cited Canter’s “long-term performance and population trends” as reasons behind his position. If the Board of Education approves the proposal on May 22, students from Canter will be moved to Ray Elementary and Bret Harte Elementary in Hyde Park, which will start teaching seventh- and eighth-grade classes in order to accommodate the influx of students. However, Canter’s story is more complex than numbers show—its closure and the transfer of its students to neighboring schools is not necessarily a step toward giving those students the best opportunity to succeed.
Burns is correct in noting that Canter has the lowest possible student performance rating from CPS and is underenrolled. However, in 2012, Canter was assigned the highest possible rating and designated a school “well organized for improvement” by 5Essentials, a survey developed by the University’s Urban Education Institute (UEI) that samples a school’s students and teachers. The survey also gave Canter high marks for having effective leaders, collaborative teachers, and involved families. The potential for success at Canter is significant, especially given that research from the University’s Consortium on Chicago Schools Research has found that moving students out of poorly performing schools rarely improves their academic performance.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who called the status quo “unacceptable,” defended his and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s decision to close Canter and 53 other schools in the city by pointing to a need for drastic action in order to improve the 56 percent dropout rate among black male CPS students. Change is certainly needed; however, closing schools should not only be a question of academic performance formulas or enrollment trends, but also a question of the chance that a school is giving its students to excel. Closing a school where data show that families, teachers, and school leaders are invested in improving students’ education is not a step forward.
Even more concerning is that Ray Elementary and Bret Harte Elementary might not be able to provide Canter students with a stable environment. Ray’s leadership has been in flux after its principal and vice principal were abruptly removed last month. CPS has refused to explain why the two school leaders were removed, and the Maroon reported earlier this month that not even Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston was informed of the change. Bret Harte was designated “not yet organized for improvement,” with weak responses in regard to collaborative teachers, involved families, and effective leaders on the 5Essentials survey. Taking kids out of Canter, which is “well organized for improvement,” and placing them in bigger schools—one that is currently in a period of administrative transition, and another that has demonstrated less potential for progress—is not conducive to the creation of effective learning environments.
CPS’s consolidation decisions may be well-intentioned and supported by data, but there are also signs indicating that closing Canter would shut the doors of an institution that is well-poised for improvement. At a community meeting with CPS officials discussing the closure of Canter earlier this month, a student credited the school with inspiring him to do well after he struggled academically in elementary school. As Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett look to improve public education in Chicago, they might look to this kind of testimony as a sign that they’ve underestimated the importance of potential.
The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.