“The CEO has failed to comply with the applicable statutes, rules, standards, and regulations relating to [Williams and Drake]. … The Board may not approve this proposal.” — Patrick McGann, CPS Hearing Officer
At first glance, Chicago Public Schools’ proposed merger of Williams Elementary and Williams Middle with Drake Elementary appears to be a byzantine and unnecessarily complex bait-and-switch. The district’s reasons to proceed with the actions —against the recommendations of its own hearing officer — involve a mix of history, policy, and bad math.
Ten years ago, Chicago was in the midst of a different set of school reforms: Renaissance 2010. One central component of that reform was operating multiple small schools out of one building. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams Elementary School, a K-8 school in Bronzeville named for the African-American surgeon who invented open heart surgery, was among the schools chosen for this initiative. Having been shuttered just a year prior in 2002, Williams was re-opened in August 2003 with four small schools within its walls, including Williams Multiplex Elementary and Williams Preparatory Academy Middle. The other two schools have since left the building.
Another equally momentous change for the school came just last year when the Urban Prep charter school opened its new Bronzeville campus inside the Williams building. The first Urban Prep school has been widely touted in the local and national media as a successful charter model for black male high schoolers — praise which elides some more complicated factors connected to its performance. For instance, the school is described as sending 100% of graduating seniors to college; however, it is also true that the school loses roughly one-third of its freshmen before graduation through expulsion and drop-out.
Nonetheless, Urban Prep is a publicity magnet, and it was offered two charters for new campuses. One of those was the Bronzeville campus, to be co-located with the two Williams schools.
And as a result of the upcoming school action, Urban Prep Bronzeville appears in line to be handed a building all its own.
Here’s the basics of CPS’s plan: the two Williams schools will be subsumed into the nearby Drake Elementary, located down the road at 2722 S. King Drive. But the combined school would then be moved back into the Williams building at 2710 S. Dearborn, and Urban Prep’s incoming classes would move into 2722 S. King.
In other words, Drake will come into Williams, take over the schools there, and vacate its building for Urban Prep.
To justify taking action, the district argues that the Williams schools are half-empty. As is so often the case, this argument is mathematically dubious at best. Just one flaw with the district’s reasoning involves special education. Almost 25% of the student body at Williams Middle has special needs, meaning that their maximum homeroom size is 14, not the 30 that CPS recommends for other students. Ignoring that fact (as the district has), Williams Middle is deemed 53% utilized; considering that fact, it would be 65% utilized, a proportion that would have removed it from consideration for closure.
CPS also argues that the Williams schools are under-performing, and that Drake would be better for its students. But that argument can only be made with a very myopic view of the data. The report card from the Illinois State Board of Education shows that Williams outperformed Drake (and the rest of its network) for four of the last five years. And according to NWEA tests — the tests that the state is adopting to align with federal standards — Williams has consistently performed above average, and better than Drake.
Not only does the school action have little quantitative basis, the effect it will have on the Bronzeville community is profound. With Williams technically closing (despite staying in the same building) it will lose teachers, administrators, and staff who have provided the core of a successful neighborhood school in an often treacherous area.
Williams Middle eighth grader Marshawn Miller scored a 99% on his ISAT test and is attending the highly selective Jones College Prep next year:
“Growing up in the community of the Dearborn homes is one of the most dangerous experiences I have encountered in my life. Everywhere I turned, someone was either killed or wounded by the gun play that went through the community, and I feared that I would have ended up dead sooner or later. This school, Williams Preparatory Academy, helped create and place fundamentals for me to become what I am today.” Marshawn Miller, Williams student.
Students are so upset about the prospect of closure that on May 3, as many as 100 joined with parents for a sit-in in protest. Jitu Brown, education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, said in an interview: “The children know neighborhood boundaries, school rivalries, gang issues. As adults, we’re not supposed to do everything our children say, but we are supposed to hear them when it comes to what they say is safe and not safe.”
As if that weren’t enough reason to oppose the closure, CPS’s own hearing officer believes it’s being undertaken illegally.
At the public meetings and hearing, the district suggested that the newly-constituted Drake would operate at both campuses, 2710 S. Dearborn and 2722 S. King. But after public comment was concluded, the proposal was modified to put the new Drake entirely in Williams’s building and move Urban Prep to 2722 S. King. “There is no record that Notice of this change in proposed school action was [ever] sent to the affected parents, guardians, public officials or the Directors of Urban Prep,” hearing officer Patrick McGann writes in his report to the district. “If this is truly the CEO’s proposal, the Notice does not appear to comply with the requirements of 105 ILCS 5/34-230. As such, the Board may not approve this proposal.” [emphasis added]
In sum: the proposed action is overly complicated, mathematically unjustified, detrimental to the community, and apparently illegal.
But the ineluctable force of the District’s will cannot, it seems, be swayed. The Board voted to approve these actions along with 48 other closings, en masse, at its recent meeting. Urban Prep will get its building. It’s unclear exactly what the hundreds of students caught up in the shuffle will get in return.
 With 30 special-ed students out of 127, Williams would need 3 special-ed homerooms. That means that it only has 5 other homerooms available, which makes its “ideal” enrollment for those homerooms 30*5 = 150. With 97 students in those homerooms, the utilization of the school is 97 / 150 = 65%.
Post author: Will Guzzardi