When caught up in the daily back-and-forth drama over the future of Chicago Public Schools, it’s easy to forget that there’s a long-term strategy guiding the all the board’s decisions. The Illinois General assembly made sure of that in 2011 when they passed Public Act 097-0474, which gave the board two years to craft a long-range strategic plan for its schools.

At the time of the law’s passage, Chicago was behind the curve in this arena: Major school systems from New York City to Little Rock already had detailed 10-year plans in place, open to the public and regularly updated. Advocates for the law argued that any action the district took without a master plan was a practical shot in the dark. If such a plan were in place, they felt, the district would be less liable to spend millions on schools about to be closed—in the 17 years leading up to the 2013 closings, the district invested $196 million in the 50 doomed schools.

“We felt like there was little rhyme or reason to where CPS’s capital investments were going,” said Cecile Carrol, co-director of Blocks Together and CEFTF’s chair of master planning. “A well-thought-out plan ensures that the money is being used more responsibly – that everything they do is based on priorities.”

Public Act 097-0474 also commissioned the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force (CEFTF), an independent group of state lawmakers and local experts, to help CPS craft the plan that would form the bedrock of the city’s public education policy. If the bosses decided to shift a school’s boundaries by a block or renovate its AC system, it would need to be justified in the master plan.

CPS faced a January 2013 deadline for a draft of the plan. But in November 2012, the board asked the state for a five-month extension—just enough time, it turned out, for it to close and consolidate 61 of its schools. It wasn’t until Sept. 23, 2013 that CPS released the plan as it stands today.

The document is 353-page encyclopedia on each of the city’s 523 public schools. It predicts enrollment trends over the next five years, details policies to address both underutilization and overcrowding as well as gives an area-by-area breakdown of which schools offer which programs. CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett touted the landmark document as part of the city’s ongoing effort to “strike an equitable and efficient balance between prioritizing facility renovations where necessary and investing in high-quality programs wherever possible” over the next 10 years.

The CEFTF denounced the plan as a near-total failure.

Despite acknowledging the plan as a “major accomplishment” that “has begun to create greater transparency” for CPS, the task force dedicated the first section of its June 2014 report to scathing criticism of the document. The CEFTF listed more than a dozen major flaws in the execution of the plan, saying the district bosses would have to “go back to the drawing board” and come back with something more reasonable.

Where did the plan go so wrong? The task force offered up multiple examples of cities whose school systems have master plans that CPS could use as a model. San Diego offers an example of where critics say Chicago could have gone further.

A map cut out from the CEFTF report overlaying the 30 CPS 'districts' with the city's 77-neighborhood map
A map cut out from the CEFTF report overlaying the 30 CPS ‘districts’ with the city’s 77-neighborhood map

This is by no means an apples-to-apples comparison. The California city has about half Chicago’s population, and its schools face different challenges: Schools there aren’t built to withstand brutal winters, for example, but entire categories of maintenance funding are dedicated to “seismic upgrades” to address the constant threat of earthquakes. Also, the San Diego school district’s first 10-year plan was developed in 1968, and the plan has been regularly revised since then, so it has a considerable advantage over Chicago’s brand-new effort at a plan. Still, San Diego takes such a different approach to its strategic school planning that it’s worth comparing alongside CPS’s 10-month-old document.

Organization of Schools

To assess its buildings’ structural needs, the San Diego Unified School District’s Long-Range Facility Master Plan draws a unique profile for each of its 243 publicly-run schools, from Adams Elementary to Zamorano Elementary. Each profile includes a color-coded list rating how close each facility is to meeting standards, a room-by-room measurement of utilization and a floor plan showing how future projects could add to the existing space.

Chicago’s plan shows much of the same information, but instead of organizing its data by school it divides its report into 30 “geographic areas,” which straddle neighborhoods and consolidate multiple communities. Bucking the city’s traditional 77-neighborhood map, the plan includes Kenwood-Oakland in an area it calls “Bronzeville” and lumps Rogers Park and Uptown into “Ravenswood.”

Within each section the plan includes school-by-school charts showing utilization rates and maintenance cost figures, but the rest (program offerings, community recommendations, future facility updates) are categorized by area rather than by school. The CEFTF argued that the arbitrary boundaries failed to “put public schools in their community contexts.” If Bridgeport, New City and Chinatown all belong to the same “geographical area,” they suggest, it’s hard to draw up a wholesale assessment of students’ needs and parents’ concerns there considering the wide demographic diversity of such a large area.

Tracing the District’s History

The 2011 state law didn’t mandate its inclusion, but the absence of any historical context behind the “educational vision” heading CPS’s master plan feels like a glaring omission when held side-by-side with the San Diego plan. Starting with the narrative of San Diego’s first public school—”a small rented school building and one teacher”—in 1854, the plan spends five pages tracing the growth and milestones of the school district over its 160-year history by way of mapping the current state of the school system.

The Chicago plan gives no such history lesson, or any account of how Chicago’s withered population or CPS’s dwindling finances help the community understand the current education landscape. The plan even leaves out any mention of the school system’s most recent historical landmark: that time in 2013 when it closed more than 8 percent of its schools. A “five-year moratorium on school closures” is the only shadow of the 2013 closings that makes it into the plan.

Utilization Standards

CPS’s controversial formula for determining how close each of its schools is to capacity was one of the prototypical features of the plan, first adopted back in January 2012. Famously, this standard was a major factor in judging which schools made the 2013 closings list. The formula calculates a school’s capacity by consistently counting 75 percent of all its rooms as “homeroom classrooms,” calling the rest “ancillary classrooms.” Take the number of homerooms and multiply it by 30, and that’s the school’s “ideal enrollment.” Take the total number of rooms and multiply it by 30, and that’s the school’s “maximum facility capacity.”

During hearings over the closings critics said the formula failed to take into account each school’s unique structure and population, producing deflated figures for each school’s utilization rate.

Comparatively, the San Diego school district’s utilization standards are vastly nuanced. Not only do elementary schools have different capacity formulas than middle and high schools, but the plan gives an explicit standard for how many students should be filling each type of room. Elementary school special education classes have a 12-student capacity, for example, while high school choir rooms may hold as many as 75. Third-grade classrooms can hold up to 30 students, while middle school science labs should have no more than 25. These standards determine whether a San Diego public school is filled to capacity.

Tracking Population Shifts

Every good master plan, according to the D.C.-based 21st Century School Fund, allows for “coordinated planning, design and construction among district agencies” like public housing, health services, transportation and libraries.

The CEFTF pointed out that almost none of these agencies were involved in the CPS plan’s creation. The plan boasts the district’s coordination with the CTA, the Chicago Parks Department and Chicago Public Libraries, which all modified their hours to coordinate with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hallmark 2012 Full School Day Initiative. The document makes no mention, however, of how any of these agencies are involved in CPS’s long-range planning. The plan does include information on Chicago Housing Authority developments in each of the 30 geographical areas, but according to CEFTF members, the projects included in the plan weren’t consistent with information published by the CHA.

“The information we’ve gotten from CHA directly contradicts what CPS gave us,” Carroll said. “There were entire CHA projects that never even appeared in the master plan.”

As for following population shifts, the CPS plan shows census data tracking the city’s loss of population between 2000 and 2010, then gives projections of slight upticks in enrollment in most areas over the next five years. The projection is attributed to an independent data-mining company called Esri, although it’s never shown how they arrived at their numbers.

Meanwhile, the San Diego plan’s section on demographic and enrollment projections reads like a PhD paper. At every turn it cites public agencies, private research companies and academic studies to show how the plan arrived at its data. The plan shows population forecasts from the California Department of Finance and tracks real estate trends with information from a Wells Fargo Home Mortgage survey. Moreover, the plan also taps the California Center for Health Statistics for information on the city’s birth rates, a metric missing from the Chicago plan.

Accounting for Unused Assets

In their defense of the 2013 closings, Emanuel and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett assured Chicagoans that the move would save the city hundreds of millions of dollars in the long term, and last year a CPS press release held that the closings amounted to a $37 million in “capital avoidance savings.” But they never mentioned of the millions that the city would still have to spend on the upkeep of 44 now-vacant school buildings to keep them from deteriorating beyond repair during the repurposing process.

Where the CEFTF had asked for a CPS to outline a plan for the maintenance and security its vacant properties, the master plan simply defers to the CPS website on repurposing. The website gives an unspecified timeline for turning over the properties, but doesn’t address their maintenance needs in budgetary terms.

A major component of San Diego’s master plan is a section dedicated to “district assets,” which not only rounds up the conditions and potential resale value of each vacant school property but also outlines possible plans for each building. For each individual repurposing plan, the document includes a bulleted cost-benefit analysis of its likely effect on the community and the district.

Community Input in District Decision-Making

A sophisticated hierarchy of parent and teacher involvement goes into every decision made by the San Diego Unified School District, at least according to the city’s master plan. In the 1990s the school system broke the city into five areas and assigned each one an Area Planning Committee, comprising “parents, school and district staff, community planning committees, and interested community members.” Representatives of each committee then came together to make district-wide recommendations to the school board.

The Chicago school system’s primary tether to community stakeholders is its nine Community Action Councils (CACs), small groups of parents, community members, teachers and CPS representatives who meet monthly to discuss public school actions.

The school board commissioned the CACs in 2011, mostly in poorer areas stricken by closings and school turnarounds, to help keep CPS’s collective ear to the ground in areas most affected by school actions. Yet the extent to which CPS really bases its decisions off the CACs is less clear.

In November 2012, the Bronzeville CAC published a 10-page strategic plan for the neighborhood’s schools, projecting a coming uptick in the school-age population due to new housing developments and a high density of children under the age of 5. The next year CPS closed six schools in Bronzeville, citing underutilization., and it included no input or information from the CAC’s report in its own master plan.

Ultimately the question of community involvement in Chicago’s master plan, as with many CPS actions, is often reduced to an untraceable “yes-we-did-no-you-didn’t” squabbling match. For its part CPS did release a timeline for four public hearings on the master plan, albeit all within a month of the plan’s release. Byrd-Bennett called the hearings part of a larger effort to “work together in identifying a plan to serve all of our school communities in the best way that we can.”

Considering the sheer number and frenzied complexity of its schools, CPS may have a long road ahead if it wants to make its long-range master plan as detailed and comprehensive as San Diego’s. As it is, the city must wait until June 2016, the city’s deadline for a new draft of the plan, to see what might be different.

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