An unprecedented plan to close a level 1+ performing school prompts a litigation against CPS
Late last week, parents of the National Teachers’ Academy Elementary School officially filed a complaint against Chicago Public Schools’ Board of Education on counts of violating the Civil Rights Act and the Illinois School Code in an unprecedented decision to close a Level 1+ performing school. The complaint is punctuated by the fact that NTA serves mostly black, low-income students.
Since CPS’ Dec. 1, 2017 announcement of proposed school actions which included the proposal for NTA, parents, students, teachers and concerned community members have been in opposition with the board. The action was classified an attendance boundary reassignment and phase-out that would see NTA students integrated into South Loop Elementary School.
“We, the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Right and the Legal Assistance Foundation, have really been supporting community members throughout the first step of looking at the proposal and expressing their opinions and thoughts about it,” said Candace Moore, the lead attorney from CLCCR.
In the complaint, filed June 19, they state that the documents issued by CPS in December neither specifically stated what type of school action had been requested nor identified who requested a school action for NTA. The Jan. 29, 2018 public hearing was the first time CPS shared the specific requests for the proposal.
“Who is this supposed community that supports this plan? Because the NTA community,—the folks who are students there, have kids there or sit in that direct area and get services from that school—certainly don’t agree with it,” said Moore.
Given that in five years this predominantly black, low-income school has progressed from a Level 3, CPS’ lowest academic rating, to a Level 1+, CPS’ highest, the first count in the complaint is a violation of the Civil Rights Act alleging racial discrimination. 78% of students are African-American, with 76% coming from low income homes. This is the first time in CPS history that a Level 1+ School has been set to close.
The plaintiffs in the complaint—four parents of NTA, and two community organizations—argue that CPS is not taking this action for any education-related purpose, but instead is bowing to pressure from wealthy interests in South Loop who have long targeted NTA’s building as a convenient, desirable location for a new high school.
“These are violations of administrative law,” said Moore. “The state has rules for how we must think about school closings and we’re alleging that the district has violated those rules and therefore should not be allowed to move forward with the decision.”
According to the CPS School Code, to put “school action” into effect, the CEO is required to publish guidelines that include “objective criteria”. Former CEO Forrest Claypool published CPS’ Draft Guidelines for School Actions which stated that to propose a reassignment boundary change or phase-out, the school’s principal, parents or community members must have requested a proposal to be considered.
The plaintiffs state that at the mandatory community meetings facilitated by CPS earlier this year, more community members opposed the closing of NTA than supported it. CPS alleges that its plan to retrofit the elementary school into a neighborhood high school is a response to an ongoing request from the South Loop and Near South Side neighborhoods.
Moore explained that although a neighborhood high school is supported by some, a request for a new high school is not the same as a request to shut down an elementary school. “What we see is that there is widespread support for a new, quality high school and less support for the notion of destroying this school to get it.”
On February 28, 2018 when CPS presented the proposal for final approval, 22 people spoke up against closing NTA. Of the four who spoke in support of the proposal, none were NTA parents or students. The board voted 5-1 in favor of the proposal.
CPS USES CONTROVERSIAL METRIC AS “TIE-BREAKER”
NTA students would be integrated into South Loop Elementary School, the other high-performing elementary school in the area. The complaint seeks to interrogate how CPS was able to deem SLES a higher-performing school, saying they used low-value, racially biased criteria.
“The Illinois School Code requires that if you close a school, you must move students to a higher-performing school,” said Niketa Brar, the Executive Director of one of the organizational plaintiffs in this case—Chicago United for Equity. “Since NTA stands at the highest level on CPS' rating system, there is no higher-performing school that students can be moved to.”
Brar explained that in an attempt to avoid that legal requirement, CPS developed a new criteria this year called a “tie-breaker score” to determine what the higher-performing school is when there are two schools both achieving Level 1+ status.
“They choose to look at student attainment—raw test scores—instead of growth,” she said. “This metric looks more at what conditions students are facing outside of school than the learning happening inside it, and as a result, we know this metric will reward those with the most resources and penalize those who face the greatest inequalities in our society.”
Attainment is one of the lowest weighted metrics for performance in the School Quality Rating Policy, and discussion around the country has spawned a conversation about whether this metric takes into account the larger societal challenges around race and socio-economic inequality. As a result, many have concluded that it perpetuates a huge achievement gap.
According to Moore, CPS has always looked at growth as a more determining metric than the attainment metric in the SQRP. Growth also accounts for three times as much as attainment in SQRP, but in the “tie-breaker score” it arbitrarily all comes down to attainment.
“In fact, by relying on attainment so heavily it disadvantages a school that is majority African-American,” she said.
CUE conducted a Racial Equity Impact Assessment at NTA together with 300 community members and policy experts in education, housing, and public health.They found that the closure of NTA would place an undue burden on African-American students in Chicago.
“South Loop has African-American students but it’s not nearly as high as a percentage,” said Moore. “So because of that consistent achievement gap, you put a school that is mostly black at a disadvantage.”
At this phase, the plaintiffs are asking the court to stop any further action while their legal council continues to have out their full lawsuit.
“Our preliminary injunction is an ask to the court that, because of how much damage we think is going to happen and because we believe that we have everything we need to prove our case, they stop any further action,” said Moore.