Redeveloping a few closed Chicago public schools into apartments

While many of the closed school buildings in Chicago are drawing little attention, a few are being redeveloped:

In a blog post on Medium, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (yes, the DPD apparently blogs now) offered a first look at one of these adaptive reuse projects. They offer some details on how the process works: developers express interest in a property, seek landmarking designation for tax credits and waivers, and then begin the renovation. A suburban developer, Svigos Asset Management, is currently working to renovate the Elizabeth Peabody Public School at 1444 W. Augusta Blvd. and the John Lothrop Motley Public School at 739 N. Ada St. — of which both have addresses the highly coveted West Town area. The group is also working on getting landmark status for the Lyman Trumbull Elementary School in Andersonville for an adaptive reuse project there.

The developer is renovating these schools and turning them into new residential developments. In their post, the DPD reveals photos of the former James Mulligan School being transformed into apartments. To be fair, the Mulligan School has been shuttered for much longer than the schools that were closed a few summers ago. However, the building is nearly ready to go and the DPD indicates that the building’s new owner is gearing up for pre-leasing.

Not too surprising that the ones that are more attractive to developers are ones that are in more desirable locations.

Given the response to the closing of these schools, I’m a little surprised progress has been so slow. Granted, there are other major concerns in Chicago but given the city’s debt and the need for resources in some neighborhoods, these buildings represent an opportunity. Apparently there are plans for some other buildings:

The shuttered schools that have not been sold off still belong to the city and its residents, and some neighborhoods are looking to take these buildings back as community centers, food pantries, or other uses that would serve the surrounding residents.

These could be worthwhile ideas. Is the city determined to hold on to many of these structures rather than find community partners who could do some good? All of this reminds me of some of the fate of the properties where public housing high-rises stood for decades: often located in poorer neighborhoods, this land can sit empty for years. In fact, while Detroit gets a lot of attention for empty lots, Chicago has plenty of open space in certain neighborhoods. Outside of a long-term project of a land bank, what could be done to positively utilize these lots?

Anger at idea that suburban taxpayers should bail out Chicago Public Schools

The city-suburb divide can often be quite wide (and require therapy to overcome) and John Kass illustrates another dimension of this chasm:

In today’s angry class war politics, if you’re a suburban taxpayer in a blue state like Illinois, you might get the feeling you’ve done something wrong. But all you’ve really done is work your tail off and go without to take care of your family.

You might miss the city and ache for it, or you may be indifferent, but either way, you know you’re out there. My wife and I know. We did it for the kids. To send them to good, safe public schools. And many of you have done the same…

But the Democratic bosses of Illinois just told you that you’re going to pay some more, to bail them out of the fiscal mess they made of CPS…

But we don’t feel like bailing out a corrupt Chicago system that won’t change the way it does business.

This echoes one of the underlying reasons many Americans left cities in the first place: they didn’t want to pay/take responsibility/be party to/live near urban problems. The move to the suburbs was intended to provide a better home for their families and to pay taxes to a local government that could be more responsive to their own interests. And this move to the suburbs – particularly by wealthier white residents – left many cities in difficult situations with declining tax bases.

Does it matter that this argument is made in Illinois where political corruption is common? Arguably, taxpayers in Illinois should be suspicious of how all of their local and state tax dollars are used. Or, would typical suburbanites never want to contribute their hard-earned money to the city unless forced (and regardless of how well the money is used)? I suspect the second statement is fairly common among suburbanites – “my tax dollars should go to my community rather to other communities” – and this tends to get most loudly expressed when regional or metropolitan plans are suggested.

What will the closed CPS properties become?

When the Chicago Public Schools closed nearly 50 elementary schools (part of the story of the series Chicagoland), they noted it would be difficult to sell many of these properties. Well, the first one just sold:

The Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday unanimously approved the sale of the former Peabody Elementary school site and building to the Svigos Asset Management company for $3.5 million.

The site at 1444 W. Augusta Blvd. was one of only three closed schools that reached a bid stage for a potential sale.

The other two — the former Marconi Elementary in West Garfield Park and Wadsworth Elementary in Woodlawn — will receive new bid solicitations from the school district. CPS said both the closed schools “failed to generate qualifying bids.”

The board also unanimously approved the sale of the district’s soon-to-be-vacated headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. to Blue Star Properties for $28 million.

This is a minimalistic explanation that leaves out some very important information. Like:

1. Were these fair prices for the properties? The suggestion that other properties haven’t sold does hint that CPS is asking a decent amount.

2. How are these properties going to be used? Perhaps it doesn’t matter once they generated some revenue and are now off the hands of CPS.

It still sounds like this could be a drawn-out process.

Sociologist on bigger issues facing Chicago schools: poverty, demographics, segregation

There has been a lot of commentary about unions in the wake of the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike. But, sociologist Pedro Noguera argues there are three bigger issues that will trouble the Chicago schools and the city of Chicago long after the strike is settled:

President Obama, the teacher unions and all of the other reformers out there would do well to focus more attention on the three huge, interrelated issues that pose the biggest threat to public education and American society generally. These are complex issues that will not be resolved by any contract settlement the warring parties reach in Chicago—but they cannot be avoided if we are to fix what truly ails our public schools…

  1. Youth poverty—Since 2008, poverty rates for children have soared. Nationally, 1 out of 4 children comes from a family with incomes that fall below the poverty line, and 1 out of 7 children lives in a state of food emergency, meaning they frequently go without adequate nutrition. The impact of poverty on schools and on child development is most severe in cities and in states such as Michigan, California and Arizona. Increasingly, public schools are all that remains of the safety net for poor children, and with funding for education being cut back in almost all states, the safety net is falling apart.
  2. Changing demographics—Already in nine states, the majority of school age children are from minority backgrounds. The number of states with majority minority populations will steadily increase in the years ahead even if the influx of immigrants continues to slow due to higher birth rates among Latinos. As the ethnic composition of schools continues to change it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain public support for school funding. Voters don’t seem to understand that today’s school children will be responsible for supporting an aging, largely white population during their retirement years. Economists project that it takes at least three workers to support one retiree who is financially dependent on social security. Since 2010 we have fallen below that critical threshold. Will a less educated, poorer, multiracial workforce be able or be willing to take care of an aging white population?
  3. Growing segregation—According to the Civil Rights Project based at UCLA, 44 percent of schools in the United States are comprised almost exclusively of minority students. Latinos and blacks, the two largest minority groups, attend schools more segregated today than during the civil rights movement forty years ago. Two of every five African-American and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools. Segregation is most severe in Western states, including California—not in the South, as many people believe, and increasingly, most non-white schools are segregated by poverty as well as race. Given that dropout rates and failure tends to be highest in the schools where poor children are concentrated, how will the next generation of young people be prepared to solve the problems they will inherit?

I’m glad a sociologist writes about these; we need the big picture in mind, not just the immediate issues of contracts. There are certain things that can be done in school yet there are a number of other factors in society that also affect schools, children, parents, and neighborhoods. Schools are one lever by which we can affect society but not the only one.

Of course, tackling these issues would require going far beyond schools and instead look at the changes that threaten a number of American big cities. Issues like these are not new and have been at least several decades in the making. Would major candidates, say those running for President, be willing to tackle these three issues? Thus far, it is easier to stick to the ideas of education reform…


Chicago second in the country in economic segregation

I recently noted a Brookings Institution report about how zoning contributes to differences in academic achievement. Looking further at this data, Chicago shows that Chicago doesn’t do well among metro areas:

* In Chicago, the “housing cost gap” is large: costs (a combination of renting and buying) are over twice as high in neighborhoods near high-scoring elementary schools than in low ones. In context, the metro area has the 32nd biggest gap out of the 100 largest metros.

* The area does worse on the “test score gap”: 24th in the country, with a 26-point gap between middle/high-income schools and low-income schools.

* The authors pinpointed zoning as a driver of these inequalities, because of the relationship between restrictive zoning, low density, and high prices, but on that the area does best, the 70th most restrictive out of 100.

* On economic segregation? As a measure of how many low-income students would have to move to achieve equal distribution (a measurement similar to how racial diversity is measured), Chicago is second-worst in the country, behind Bridgeport, Connecticut, 61 to 58 percent.

Whet Moser argues that this economic segregation doesn’t bode well in a city that is also known for racial segregation. Of course, racial and economic inequality is linked so perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising.

To solve this issue, you would need to find some way for students of different backgrounds to mix in schools. Of course, this has a long history in the United States. The Coleman Report suggested this back in the 1960s. In response, the government promoted busing but this proved unpopular. Today, Chicago claims to deal with this by allowing kids to attend other schools throughout the city but of course there are not enough spots in these high-performing schools and the poor performing schools still need help.

Someone finally says it: the length of the school day doesn’t have a huge impact on student achievement

There has been much debate about a longer school days in Chicago Public Schools. But a comparison between Chicago and suburban schools made by the Chicago Tribune hints at something: the length of the school day is not the key determinant of student outcomes.

The tongue-lashings Chicago Public Schools has endured in the last several weeks over its short school day — U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it a “disgrace” — have overshadowed the fact that that many suburban students aren’t receiving much more instruction time than CPS.

Affluent Glen Ellyn’s two elementary districts both offer five hours, 15 minutes of instruction daily, only seven minutes more than CPS reports…

With state data unreliable, the Tribune used class schedules from a handful of Chicago-area districts to highlight some of the discrepancies. So while seventh-graders in northwest suburban Elgin School District U-46 are getting less than five hours, 30 minutes of instruction on average, their counterparts in southwest suburban Plainfield District 202 are receiving about seven hours, according to state records.

That’s a big difference, but one that doesn’t necessarily translate into student performance, experts say. Indeed, at a time when urban and suburban districts across the U.S. are lengthening their school days in an effort to improve tests scores and student learning, no studies conclusively link more instruction time with higher achievement.

I can think of several reasons why there has been so much attention on the length of the school day in Chicago:

1. This seems like common sense: kids will learn more if they are in school longer. However, studies suggest it is more about how time is used rather than just have larger quantities of time. And if more time was really needed, why not have a serious conversation about shorter summer breaks and possible Saturday programs?

2. It is part of a larger back and forth with teachers. Thus far, the union has not been willing to lengthen the school day and Mayor Emanuel and his team has tried to split teachers on their stance. This is not the only source of disagreement between the District/the mayor and the teacher’s union but it has been very public.

3. The school day is one of the few things that the District can more easily control. Compared to other possible solutions like improving the skills of teachers or hiring better teachers, helping improve life in poorer neighborhoods, or getting parent’s involved, this looks like an easy target.

Next year, the Chicago Public Schools will have a longer school day in 2012-2013. While leaders may take credit for this, it will be interesting to see if there is any positive outcome (and then it is another question about whether this is due to the longer school day). Additionally, if they just stop at longer school days, not much will have changed.

This reminds me of the Coleman Report which had a few findings: “student background and socioeconomic status are much more important in determining educational outcomes than are measured differences in school resources (i.e. per pupil spending)” and “socially disadvantaged black students profited from schooling in racially-mixed classrooms.” But getting school districts and the general public to get ahead these ideas (think of the debate over busing in the late 1960s and early 1970s) is a very difficult task.