No Class

An abrupt school closing–and a weak explanation–leaves students, parents, and even teachers mystified.

By Linda Lutton

Kareemah Wilson was still settling into her new high school when she came home with the news it was shutting its doors. “It was in July sometime that they told us, and they said it was closing the last day of summer school, August 13.”

Kareemah had transferred to Urban Youth Alternative High School on the recommendation of a counselor at Dunbar High. Kareemah had been falling behind at Dunbar and at one point stopped going. “You get with the wrong people, the wrong crowd, you take that about-face and don’t know how to turn yourself back around,” says Robin Wilson, Kareemah’s mother. “That’s more or less what happened.”

She was pleased to see Kareemah leave her Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood to go to Urban Youth, in an office building at 65 E. Wacker Pl. But she says that when Kareemah enrolled in April, nobody mentioned that she would have to hunt for another high school in just four months. There were rumors that the school might be moving–most likely to the South Loop–but “never was there talk that the school would be closed. It was like a bombshell dropped on these kids’ laps.”

Board of Education officials say Urban Youth was shut down for poor performance and low attendance. But the abrupt closing–the board has given other schools two years’ notice–followed by rumors that downtown businesses wanted the school out, have some people wondering what other reasons there might be.

“We are not getting the straight story about why they’re doing this, and nothing that they have said is borne out by the facts,” says Zarina Suarez O’Hagin, who as an attorney with the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project advises parents of former Urban Youth students. “The question you have to ask is, what’s the reason for this school closing right now? Because this doesn’t have anything to do with kids. It has to do with some businesspeople being pissed off, or it has to do with adult things, but it has nothing to do with what these kids need, and that’s horrible.”

Even teachers weren’t notified until early July, giving them little time to find other positions before the new school year. “Maybe two weeks before they told all the kids, they told us,” says Robert Capriles, a first-year teacher at the school. “They brought us all in, and this woman from the board came in and told us that they were shutting the school down. We had all these questions and she kept telling us, ‘Well, I didn’t make the decision. I can’t answer your questions.’ They did the same thing with the students. They sent the same woman down saying, ‘I didn’t make the decision. I can’t answer your questions’–about why they did this or if there’s any chance of it staying open or anything. The kids were like, ‘Well, then why are you here?'”

Run for decades as a “Double E” school–for education and employment–Urban Youth offered a work-study program to dropouts who wanted to finish school. Four years ago Urban Youth began granting diplomas, but it retained some of its “Double E” components; students could still earn credits for working a job. Urban Youth also offered a full class schedule year-round. “The idea was that since this was a different population of kids, kids who had problems in other schools could pretty much get all the credits they needed to get a diploma within two years,” says Capriles. “It was kind of like getting them through the program as quickly as possible and getting them to move on with their lives.”

Capriles says Urban Youth was unique in “who it served and what it did for them. The population of that school was mostly dropouts, mostly pregnant girls or girls with children, a lot of the city’s gangbangers. I think a lot of us were really trying to make a difference, trying to get them to understand that they were somebody. A lot of them made a big turnaround there. Not all of them did–I’m not going to say that everyone succeeded there. But if you have 50 percent of the dropouts succeeding, it’s better than having them out on the street selling crack or killing each other.”

Mixing Loop professionals with 700 students–nearly all of them black or Latino–who might otherwise be selling crack is bound to lead to culture clash. “I never found it to be a major problem,” says attorney Michael Radzilowski, another former tenant at 65 E. Wacker Pl. “But I could understand how it would affect the building’s viability, because you just have a large number of students hanging around. I thought they handled it pretty well–it’s just there were a lot of students.” One parent says she was told by a dean at Urban Youth that the school was being closed because of pressure from the Greater State Street Council. When a parent representative tried to meet with the director of the council, Belinda Reeves, “they were not forthcoming,” says O’Hagin. “They were unwilling to speak with her.” (Reeves refused to answer phone calls for this story.)

Radzilowski saw Urban Youth as “a very well run place” and Yolanda Wallace as an innovative principal with a knack for picking up talented nontraditional teachers. He says that in February ’98 the school was ready to move to a new location and he gave Wallace some legal advice concerning the new lease; he’s not sure why the move was never made. But a year earlier, he says, the board had discussed shutting the school down. The timing was bad: Urban Youth had just been honored by various groups for improved test scores.

When students, teachers, and parents tried to find out more about why the school was now being closed, they were bombarded with statistics: a 50 percent attendance rate; 80 percent of the students absent more than 40 days a year; just 2.5 percent of the kids reaching national norms in math. Robin Wilson attended the July school board meeting and went home feeling smaller than ever. “They demoralized those children so bad and that school so bad that I felt bad,” says Wilson. “My first thought was, ‘My God, they’re really putting this school down, and I have the nerve to be trying to fight for this? Am I doing the right thing? Is it really that bad?'”

But Wilson felt the school should be given the support it needed to succeed. “You’ve got your statistics,” she says, “but my God, this isn’t the only school in the city of Chicago that’s doing as poorly as you say it is. I mean, come on now, let’s do our homework–you’ve got all these other high schools that are doing just as poorly, and what’s the problem there? Give these children a break. Put that school on probation. Reconstitute the school. Do what you have to do. But to shut the school totally? Yes, I was very upset about it.”

According to schools CEO Paul Vallas, the closing of Urban Youth had nothing to do with the Greater State Street Council or complaints from nearby businesses and everything to do with poor academics and attendance. “Some people have tried to raise the issue that this is a race issue. A lot of people out there, when they can’t argue the merits of what we’re doing they try to interpret what our motivations are,” says Vallas. “The school was simply not performing and the students were not benefiting. It was not performing on par overall with other high schools, and it was not performing on par overall with other alternative schools.” Vallas says probation and reconstitution are measures reserved for neighborhood schools. “We close alternative schools that fail.”

Yolanda Wallace would not comment for this story, but she indicated to her teachers that she learned of the closing only shortly before they did. Vallas tells a different story: “The board has been talking about closing that school for the last two years. And I’m talking about debate that goes beyond me. The board has asked at numerous board meetings why we haven’t moved to either reconstitute or shut down the school. There’s been public discussion on this. I’m not suggesting that people have come in and testified on this, but for people to run around and say, ‘Oh my God, this was a surprise to us!’ That suddenly our school is open and the next day it’s closed–no.”

It’s true that scores were low. But reading test scores rose from 6 percent of the students reaching national norms in 1998 to 12.8 percent in ’99–a level comparable to other Chicago high schools. Math scores were at 11.2 percent a year before they dropped to 2.4. And some problems seemed beyond Urban Youth’s control. Enrollment started to balloon as Chicago began emphasizing test scores. It doubled in the last four years, and at the same time attendance rates fell. Before 1994, when the school had about 320 students, the attendance rate consistently exceeded 90 percent–superb for a high school. As the school added hundreds of students to its rolls the attendance rate dropped to between 50 and 68 percent–the numbers Vallas likes to cite. Parents and teachers have charged that Urban Youth was used as a dumping ground by neighborhood high schools trying to improve their own test scores; by transferring low-scoring students to Urban Youth, other schools could raise their averages.

The board’s recitation of statistics rankles O’Hagin. “What they said [at the July school board meeting] was, ‘This school is going down the tubes. All the test scores are plummeting.’ This is a total lie. The scores of this school are all over the place. They’re up and they’re down. It’s not like there’s a consistent pattern of a downward trend,” says O’Hagin. “They go around making these statements that are totally not backed up by evidence and they just feel like they can get away with it and no one ever makes them accountable for it.”

Urban Youth students were told they had several options when it came to finding another school. But for many of them, the board’s suggestion that they reenroll in their neighborhood high schools added insult to injury. “The whole reason they were in Urban Youth in the first place was because they couldn’t deal with their old high schools,” says Capriles. “It was like throwing them back to the wolves.” Youth Connection Charter School, which is a sort of legal umbrella for 26 private alternative schools that allows the school board to fund the education of public school students transferred to them, agreed to take 250 students as part of its contract with the board. Students were also referred to a handful of night schools. “There’s all sorts of opportunities,” says Vallas. “Anyone who wants to enroll in a program can enroll in a program. I can’t go in and physically enroll people myself. All I can do is make calls, write letters, hold workshops, and just hope that parents and students take responsibility for themselves and go in and enroll.” Vallas says the district will spend $250,000 to $300,000 tracking and counseling former Urban Youth students.

For Robin Wilson, the scramble to find Kareemah another high school “was almost like looking for a needle in a haystack. They made it sound like, ‘Oh, yeah, because you guys are coming from Urban Youth you won’t have a problem getting into schools. They’re going to accept you regardless.’ But that wasn’t the case. They had to be screened and tested and what-have-you just like anyone else.” Kareemah ended up at a Youth Connection school. Her mother wonders who knows that or cares. “No one has called here yet to say, ‘Well Mrs. Wilson, were you fortunate enough to get your child into a school?’ They aren’t as concerned as they pretended to be.”

To date, Youth Connection alternative schools have enrolled 215 Urban Youth students. Vallas says “many” were placed back at their neighborhood schools and one or two in magnet schools. But in all, the school board can account for only 324 of the 700 students supposedly on the rolls of Urban Youth.

“We couldn’t track down half the kids,” says Vallas. “I don’t know what the actual number of enrollees was. What they had a tendency to do at Urban Youth is put kids on the roster who were never there and were not showing up. I sent inspectors out to that school. On any given day, you would never find more than 300 kids attending that school. Summer you were lucky if you had 100 kids.” The incentive for a school to “carry” names–to keep students on the rolls though they’ve clearly stopped attending–is financial, says Vallas, as funding for staff is tied directly to enrollment.

But an assumption that Urban Youth had only half the students it claimed raises more questions about the school’s closing, which came amid a heated debate between Vallas and school reform groups over how to calculate dropout rates. Where are the 375 missing Urban Youth students? Should they be counted as dropouts? If Urban Youth had only half the number of students it claimed, then wouldn’t the actual attendance rate have been far better than what the school board is claiming? But a poor attendance rate was supposedly a big reason why the school closed.

One administrator of a Youth Connection alternative school says that even though the schools agreed to accept the students, “we weren’t real happy with this. This was a huge number of kids to take in a short period of time.” Youth Connection schools are under contract to enroll a total of 1,400 public school transfers–out of the roughly 15,000 students who drop out every year. All 26 schools have waiting lists.

“This was not handled as best it could have been,” admits Vallas. “We should have been in the school earlier laying out the plan to reassign the students. We were much too late in doing it. Hindsight being 20/20, if I had to do it all over again, I might have waited a year to do it.” Others think the short notice was by design. “Basically they didn’t give us enough time to organize. They didn’t give us enough time to get people together to be able to effect any sort of change,” says Capriles, who believes downtown businesses forced the shutdown.

“We were told that if we were going to do anything to be very behind-the-scenes about it, to more or less cover our butts,” says Capriles. Various people warned teachers of reprisals, he says, including the woman from the board and Urban Youth’s principal and vice principal. “I was kind of helping the kids organize marches and stuff like that and people were telling me to be very careful.”

For O’Hagin, the Urban Youth precedent should serve as a warning. “This should make any school nervous,” she says. “No school has the right to an existence.”