Former CPS head: Closures flawed

Staff Writer

Hyde Park resident Argie Johnson, former superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, said while she is not opposed to school closings, CPS could have created a more inclusive process that might have made the transition smoother. She said should CPS decide to close Canter Middle School, a phase out approach would be best for next year’s graduating students.

“Clearly some of the schools need to be closed because of the decrease in population and some are not performing up to potential,” said Johnson, who said the drop from 411,000 to a little over 400,000 students is a big drop. “Somewhere we lost about 11,000 students. That dictates that changes need to be made, especially with a billion-dollar deficit.”

The agreement that some schools need to be closed is where the similarities in strategies stop between Johnson and the current CPS administration.

Johnson, who served as superintendent from 1993 to 1995, said she served with a 16-member elected board and that board members counted on parents for election votes.

“It doesn’t appear that there was [as] much parent involvement as it was back then,” said Johnson when comparing the differences between and elected school board and a mayor appointed school board.

She said she does not agree with the current school closing process, which included a series of community meetings and hearings where community members made their cases against preliminary school closing lists presented by Byrd-Bennett.

“I would have started with community input [and] came to an agreement on which schools to close,” Johnson said. “Then I would have talked about what the board recommended community by community. I would have involved the parents from the beginning.”

Johnson said it would have been a longer process but it would have had more support and a bigger buy in.

Johnson, whose career in public education included many years in middle schools, said a phase out process would be best for Canter.

“The 7th graders who are already there should be allowed to stay for their last year,” Johnson said. “They are matriculating from elementary school to middle school and then to high school. Them going back from middle school to elementary school and then to high school is too much change.”
Johnson said, “[T]hey need socialization and are going through emotional, physical and hormonal changes. They need as much stability as they can get.”

Before becoming the general superintendent of CPS, the retired educator held numerous positions in the New York City school system — the nation’s largest — serving as teacher, curriculum coordinator, assistant principal, principal, deputy district community superintendent and ultimately deputy chancellor for instruction. During her time in New York she was recognized for transforming a junior high school from being in the bottom 10 percent of city schools to being one of the four most effective schools in the city serving poor and minority students. Johnson, who worked as a research biochemist before becoming an educator, currently serves as an educational consultant to National Science Foundation programs, state departments of education and urban school systems throughout the country.

About six weeks after moving to Chicago, Johnson moved to the Hyde Park neighborhood and has since started a tutoring program at First Presbyterian Church of Chicago where she serves as an elder, is an advisor to principals and reads scholarship applications for students at Kenwood Academy High School. She also serves on the citywide Interfaith Council for the Homeless.

“I’ve always had a great interest in children and how they learn,” Johnson said. “Anything that I can do that would improve education process, I will. There’s a lot to do and a lot to learn.”