By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune reporter
10:16 PM EDT, April 24, 2013
As Chicago Public Schools embarks on closing dozens of schools, a third-grader from Garvey Elementary School on Wednesday summed up how many parents, educators and other students feel about the shutdowns.
Speaking at the monthly Board of Education meeting, Asean Johnson, 9, pointed out that schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett and board President David Vitale both visited the school last week and remarked on how quiet it was, how it had a "well-stocked library" and how "really exceptional" it was.
"Why then are you closing Marcus Garvey when it has everything you say it should have?" Asean asked district leaders.
Later outside board chambers, he grappled to understand the adult logic behind CPS' decision: "Why would you close a school down that you like? That makes no sense."
With one month to go before board members vote on whether to close 53 elementary schools and a high school program, parents, teachers and an elected official came to the meeting Wednesday seeking to raise issues that they hope will save their schools from the chopping block.
Some mentioned test scores that were solid or improving, partnerships with social service agencies and safety as reasons the schools should not be closed. Others complained about the school utilization formula, which does not take into account smaller class sizes needed for special education students.
Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th, questioned the blending of students from Songhai Elementary, which is closing, with those at Curtis Elementary. "There is no way any police commander told you that was a safe (combination), because they're at odds with each other," Austin said.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said CPS was moving too quickly.
"This feels so chaotic," Lewis said. "It feels as if there are schools that clearly should not be on this list."
Indeed, many parents have been arguing for weeks that some schools with above-district-average scores on state tests are being closed, and that students are being sent to schools at the same academic performance level or with similar test scores. A Tribune analysis found at least three dozen cases where proposed school closings would not send students to a school that was performing significantly better.
At the meeting, board members asked district staff to give them clearer answers, including on school utilization and safety.
Board member Mahalia Hines said she could not vote for a school closing if it wasn't safe for students walking a new route. Hines cited as an example the closing of Melody Elementary's building and the transfer of its students to the building now housing Delano, which is slated to close. "I took that route for myself, and I would not send my child," Hines said.
While the board has approved only two new charter schools for fall, they voted to add about 3,000 seats to existing charter campuses Wednesday, including those run by Noble, LEARN and the United Neighborhood Organization. UNO will be adding high school grades to its Rogers Park campus, which met strong opposition when it opened last year. School closing foes, including the teachers union, blame privately run charters for causing the underenrollment that is leading to school closings.
In communities many miles from district headquarters, the tug-of-war over school closings picked up.
A group called Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools, including students from such high schools as Roosevelt, Robeson, Lindblom and Gage Park, boycotted a state-mandated standardized test, saying they hoped it would be a wake-up call to Mayor Rahm Emanuel over closing schools based on test scores.
The district sent home letters and made robocalls to parents telling them the test was required by state law and that students who missed it would be jeopardizing promotions to the next grade and graduation eligibility. Students said they planned to take the test on a makeup day in May.
At Dewey, a neighborhood school on the South Side slated for a staff overhaul and to be run by the private Academy for Urban School Leadership, parents were busy gathering laptops and iPads and securing them in a parent room at the school, fighting off district-led efforts to inventory the items. Any inventory should wait until a final board decision May 22, parents argued.
"I don't know if they're taking them out of the building or taking it into their possession," said Matthew Johnson, local school council chairman for Dewey. "We as parents are taking a stand. We're saying, 'You're not going to do that. We worked hard to get technology in this building. It's disrespectful to us while we're in the process of fighting for our school to be doing this.'"
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the district has been taking an inventory of assets in all buildings facing closure or turnaround.
"This is work we have to do, and it has to be done now," Carroll said. "We are doing it after hours when school is out. We're doing it at every single school in order to ensure that should these actions move forward that we are ahead of the planning process so every school can open on time and be ready to serve all students in the fall."
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