Bundled up against the biting cold on a recent evening, parents of students at Brentano Elementary Math and Science Academy knocked on doors and collected signatures in an effort to keep their school open.
The parents don't know if the Logan Square grammar school will be among those targeted for closing when Chicago Public Schools releases its final list in March. But they've decided not to wait, creating one of the best-organized fronts in a battle being waged across the city by parents trying to save their local schools.
The parents at Brentano have collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition, and on Monday they will rally and march with other Logan Square parents to a school closing meeting.
"We want to tell CPS not to put Brentano on that list," said Kate Kindleberger, who started a toddler play group at the school to attract young middle-class families that are new to the neighborhood. "It's a wonderful school and we want it to stay."
Brentano, however, squarely fits the district's criteria for closing schools. It is among 330 schools the district says don't have enough students. CPS says Brentano's enrollment of 426 students leaves it more than half empty.
While it has scored higher than CPS averages compared to all state assessment tests, declining growth in academic scores has gotten the school classified this year as among the worst-performing schools in the district. And the cash-strapped district says the school building needs $18.3 million in updates and maintenance.
So Brentano's parents knew they had to come together if their neighborhood school was going to stay open. They enlisted 80 volunteers and gathered petitions, which were submitted to the district last week. They created the Friends of Brentano to hash out ideas on how to increase enrollment, bump up scores and market the school to more families.
And they helped gather 400 parents, students and teachers for a community meeting on school closings, where their presentation elicited words of encouragement from the commission charged with gathering input on the issue.
"We don't know if CPS is planning to close Brentano, but we want them to know that Logan Square is a neighborhood that's growing," said Seth Lavin, Kindleberger's husband, who wants his 2-year-old to be able to walk to Brentano for school in a few years. "This is a neighborhood full of strollers. We're going to get new families into the school but we need more time."
This week, CPS is expected to release a narrowed list of schools that could be shut down, allowing parents and community activists who have been working in the dark a better idea of what might happen to specific schools.
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said "the utilization crisis facing our district is stretching our limited resources much too thin and limits our ability to make investments in every school that supports student learning." The district also said that of the 755 CPS students living within Brentano's boundaries, only 269 are enrolled at the school, the rest going to other district schools.
Brentano's enrollment has been in steady decline, and it has 500 fewer students than it did in 2000. Between 2000 and 2010, population declined in Logan Square as a whole, and the neighborhood lost about 40 percent of its school-age children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many of those leaving were Hispanic families with kids, replaced mostly by white singles or, to a lesser extent, childless married couples, the census shows. But residents and community activists say those young newcomers are now having kids, and the schools in the community should be kept open to accommodate growth.
Chris Hewitt's daughter is only a year old, but he's already involved in Brentano, where he sits on the local school council. The LSC and the principal have been working on issues including a music program, full-day kindergarten and hiring at Brentano.
"These are all programs conducive to this becoming a great neighborhood school," Hewitt said. "I was expecting to find a school that needs to be saved, but it's only a school that needs to be loved by its community."
Ald. Scott Waguespack, whose ward will include the Brentano area after redistricting in 2015, has been among a group of aldermen speaking out against school closings. He notes that other schools in the ward threatened by closing have been improved through the efforts of parents, and he hopes the same can be done at Brentano.
"We said (to those other schools) you've got to shake it up because CPS is about to close you," said Waguespack, 32nd. "That's when parents got together. They showed commitment with time and investment."
Rose Becerra, a local school council president who has lived through the neighborhood's changes, says over the years the building has been an anchor for her community. She graduated three daughters from Brentano and has a son in seventh grade. The school, Becerra says, has been used for neighborhood meetings, policing initiatives and after-school dance clubs.
"It's a community center," she said, "and our kids need it to stay open."Copyright © 2015, CT Now