Working for a publication that focuses on education facilities, I have a professional duty to pay attention to school closings. In most cases, I observe events from a distance as a detached observer — budget cuts or declining student numbers are forcing such-and-such district to close some of its campuses.
When one has no stake in the decisions, it's easy to look at budget figures and enrollment projections and see the rational basis, the financial imperative, for shuttering campuses. They are a common occurrence; an article in The Wall Street Journal this month said that districts in the United States shuttered 1,069 traditional public schools in 2010-11.
But when the closing talk veers a little too closely from professional to the personal, facts and figures are quickly trumped by tradition and sentiment.
So I've been thinking a lot lately about Chicago, which now is embroiled in the task of deciding which of its 680 schools it will seek to close. I attended only one year in Chicago Public Schools, in Mrs. Bernstein's kindergarten class at Hayt Elementary. That school is unlikely to be on the list — it's operating this year at 107 percent capacity — but 100 or more schools operating much less efficiently across the city may be targeted for closing.
My own experience tells me those closings will affect more than just those students enrolled in the schools. Although I attended Catholic school after kindergarten, the public school still was the center of the neighborhood and many of my childhood memories. I took my first basketball shot on the playground; in the winter, when they froze the gravel playground, it's where I made my first ankle-wobbling attempts at ice skating; years later, that playground was where my friends and I won the neighborhood 16-inch softball championship.
The numbers provide a strong argument for mass closings in Chicago — district figures show that 403,000 students attend city schools, but districtwide classroom capacity is more than 511,000. A gaping budget deficit and a new teachers contract to pay for mean that closing schools is one of the few ways the system can cut expenses.
Finances likely will be the overriding factor in deciding which schools must close, but the decisionmakers in Chicago should keep in mind that the city may lose more than just excess capacity.
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