Press release from PURE press conference on school closings and child mental health

Erin Mason speaks at PURE press conference

Erin Mason speaks at PURE press conference

Press Release **** For Immediate Release

 May 21, 2013


Julie Woestehoff, Parents United for Responsible Education. 773-715-3989

Diane Horwitz, Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE). 847-332-2756

Ann Aviles de Bradley, Assistant Professor, Northeastern Illinois University. 773-339-8479

Child mental health experts raise serious concerns about the impact of proposed mass school closings on Chicago students

Today, several notable social workers, counselors, and academic researchers from prominent Illinois and Chicago organizations and universities submitted a set of statements to the members of the Chicago Board of Education detailing their serious concerns about the potential negative impact of school closings on Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students’ social-emotional health. Their statements are available here.

Tomorrow, the Board of Education is scheduled to consider approving up to 54 school closings and consolidations.

The experts shared their statements at a press conference held at Roosevelt University and sponsored by Parents United for Responsible Education, a Chicago public school parent advocacy organization, along with education professors Ann Aviles de Bradley and Diane Horwitz.

Among those speaking at the press conference were

  • Ann Aviles de Bradley, Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Inquiry and Curriculum Studies, Northeastern Illinois University
  • Daniel Cooper, Assistant Director, Institute of Public Safety and Social Justice, Adler School
  • Francisco X. Gaytan, Assistant Professor School of Social Work, Northeastern Illinois University
  • Erin Mason, President, Illinois School Counselor Association
  • Cassandra McKay-Jackson, Assistant Professor, Jane Addams College of Social Work, University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Erika Schmidt, Director of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis

Significant concerns raised by these experts include grief and loss, issues of transition, schools as community cornerstones, inclusion of student voice, and lack of adequate mental health services.

Erin Mason, speaking on behalf of the Illinois School Counselor Association, said “not unlike losing a loved one, leaving a school that is closing may be devastating for some students and families who have built strong ties to faculty, staff and other families.” Mason cites articles that state, “transitions for some students result in academic difficulties, social/emotional problems, decline in self-concept, poor motivation, decreased attendance, and increased dropout rates,” and another which concludes, “States, schools, and districts need to recognize student mobility as a barrier to success.”

UIC’s Cassandra McKay-Jackson highlighted additional negative outcomes associated with school mobility, “(L)ow attachment (or school detachment) is related to higher levels of violent behavior and aggressive beliefs, more negatively perceived school climate, and lower academic motivation as well as higher risk for school dropout.”

According to Erika Schmidt, director of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy, “School communities are built on a network of important relationships. While the primary relationship is between the child and teacher, other relationships within the school – the principal, assistant principal, classmates, older and younger students, the security guard – all these people provide an integral role in supporting children and helping them thrive. The continuity of these relationships is critical for children whose lives may be frequently disrupted by trauma or loss. Without this kind of stability and continuity, children have a difficult time engaging in learning or even feeling like learning matters to them.”

One important group impacted by school actions are homeless students.“CPS has failed to provide needed support even for its most vulnerable homeless children.” Ann Aviles de Bradley added that “instability in both home and schooling environments is associated with the poorest educational outcomes.”

Approximately 18% of students impacted by school actions are Latino. NEIU’s Francisco Gaytan stated that “The complex lives of newcomer immigrant youth and Latinos often require a single, easily and regularly accessible site, where comprehensive and culturally sensitive services are available. Schools often are the only site that plays such a role in the lives of Latinos and immigrants.” Further, as one of the rare institutions that welcomes all, closing down a nearby neighborhood school would place a large burden on many immigrant Latino families when the school is quite possibly the only social service that they can access.

Many of the experts mentioned that significant cut-backs in mental health services make mass school closings even more problematic. Researchers stated thatproviding critical services for students experiencing mental health has become more difficult due to the closure of several community-based centers. Further, Illinois ranks third in the nation for cuts to mental health services and funding for community mental health services for children has been reduced by 13 percent between fiscal year 2009 and 2012. CPS has a ratio of approximately 1 social worker for every 1,000 students, which is well above the ratio recommended by the National Association of Social Workers, which is a ratio of 1:250. Similarly, elementary school counselors in CPS are only 1 to a school building and have student caseloads well beyond the American School Counselor Association’s recommended 1:250 ratio. Many of these also serve in a second clerical position as the special education case manager which severely limits the services they can provide to all students.

The efforts CPS has made so far to address these concerns have fallen far short of what our experts consider appropriate. Aviles de Bradley said, “The current whole class exercises that have been reported in some closing schools are simply inadequate to meet the myriad of complex individual needs of children and their families.”

Schmidt added, “CPS has demonstrated a disregard for the health and well being of these children and their families through its handling of the slated closures….CPS has assigned outsiders to go into each school to help bridge this transition. These are people the children do not know or trust and those people the children do know and trust are given scripts to program their communication, rather than being allowed to help the children deal with the fears and anxieties that inevitably attend such disruption in their lives. Children, parents, principals, teachers, and all the staff that make a school a community feel devalued by this impersonal and unrealistic handling of these closures.

According to Aviles de Bradley, “We must criticallyexamine and understand the potential negative outcomes, as they are not in the best interests of students, families, schools and their respective communities. This lack of planning and resources will be especially harmful to students experiencing poverty and homelessness. To minimize and ultimately eliminate the negative social-emotional impacts on students, a reconsideration of the proposed school actions must occur.

McKay-Jackson added, “When school detachment is coerced it could be likened to a traumatic event that occurs without any preparation, shattering feelings of security and promoting a feeling powerlessness and vulnerability to a potentially dangerous world. McKay-Jackson urges school leaders to involve students in their deliberations: Engaging student voice and their meaningful participation in positive decision- making also fosters social emotional development. Yet through the exclusion of student voices from the school closure conversation there has been a missed opportunity to support future school attachment. Supporting student voice does not require adults to abdicate their decision-making roles but it does invite youth to participate in joint problem solving, promoting an equity-based reform that requires participation of those who are intended to receive support and who have been most affected by inequitable policies.”

Mason’s statement for the Illinois School Counselor Association includes a detailed list of recommendations, including hiring critical staff from the closing school at the welcoming school and adding additional school counselors. She also recommends minimizing or eliminating administrative and clerical responsibilities of all school counselors so that they have the time to develop transition and adjustment plans for students from the closing and welcoming schools Suggested steps toward this would be creating a transition team at each school that would include parents, school counselors, and school social workers and using school social workers to offer positive, proactive programs to address student, family, and school community needs.

PURE’s response

Parents United for Responsible Education is grateful to all of these professionals who took the time to providetheir expertise and opinions about how Chicago’s proposed mass school closings may affect our children.

These experts’ concerns echo those of many parents who spoke out during the hearings and in other venues and events over the past months.

We have been more than disturbed by the apparent lack of attention by CPS leaders to parents’ concerns and to similar issues raised by education experts, including CPS teachers. We hope that today’s presentation by these professionals will be seriously and thoughtfully considered by those leaders before making a decision that clearly has the potential to cause a great deal of harm to so many children.


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Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.