Austin residents fight school closures

CPS plans to shutter or consolidate nearly 100 schools, including 11 in Austin

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By Reema Amin

AustinTalks.org

Anger permeated a community meeting, Dec. 13, concerning Chicago Public Schools' plans to close or consolidate nearly 100 schools citywide next spring.

Residents attending the meeting at Austin's Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave., said they're ready to take action. The quiet and attentive crowd turned loud and angry as West Side residents joined state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-8th), host of the meeting, and other community leaders in speaking their minds.

A heated debate ensued about which CPS schools could be on the chopping block. Complaints were directed at CPS officials for keeping parents, teachers and others in the dark about plans.

Community concern heightened last week after the Chicago Tribune obtained an internal memo that indicates officials plan to close or consolidate 95 schools citywide. Eleven of those schools are on the West Side, including in the Austin/North Lawndale area. Specific schools weren't listed in the document.

CPS has until March 31 to make public the closure list, after state lawmakers and the governor agreed to extend the Dec. 1 deadline. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has said the CPS needed more time to build trust with the community.

That trust was tested at the Dec. 13 Austin meeting.

After guests spoke, including Ford and Stacy Gates, legislative coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union, one resident stood up and said she is "tired" of having meetings and is ready for action.

"This is about how rich folks in this country do not want poor folks in this city," said Tara Stamps, a teacher for 15 years and a West Side resident. "This is racism at its highest level."

Stamps said meetings will not convince lawmakers to prevent school closures, and residents need to begin "street fighting" and occupy schools in protest.

Several residents shouted in support of Stamps' statements.

CPS guidelines say school closures will specifically depend on how well school buildings are used. Schools on the West and South sides have seen the biggest drops in student enrollment.

But a CPS spokesperson, who refused to give her name for publication, said there's no way to tell if these areas will see the most school closures or phase-outs since the school district is in the process of compiling this information.

Of the roughly 25 CPS schools located in Austin, only seven are considered efficient based on their student-to-classroom ratios, Valerie Leonard, an organizer for the North Lawndale Alliance, said at last week's meeting.

CPS has not officially decided which schools are underutilized, the CPS spokeswoman insisted.

Citywide, about 50 percent of schools are considered "underused," and 140 out of 680 schools are "more than half empty," according to data compiled by CPS. A school is considered underutilized if less than 80 percent is used.

The percentage is based on the number of students and the number of classrooms used.

Education advocate Dwayne Truss said he has done a walk-through of some Austin schools and found that CPS' data may be off.

Truss visited Spencer Elementary Technology Academy, 214 N. Lavergne Ave., and counted 51 classrooms instead of the 54 reported by CPS.

He argued that CPS could be making other data errors with other schools, which could skew a school's efficient or underutilized rating.

Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, an advocacy group that Truss helps lead, recently did its own analysis of underused schools and found CPS used a formula that "works to both exaggerate underutilization and underreport overcrowding."

The group says, "You can have 36 students in every homeroom in your building and still be considered 'efficient' under this formula. You can have a full building with 24 kids in almost all homerooms and 23 students in one and be 'underutilized.'"

The building utilization commission is setting up meetings with community members, partly to review any incorrect details CPS may have recorded, said the CPS spokeswoman.

"We want to hear, are we counting this incorrectly?" the spokesperson said. "Principals can tell us. Schools can come out and tell us how they are using this space."

CPS guidelines state that a school can only be closed if students "have the option" to attend another higher-performing school.

But some parents worry their children won't have proper transportation to get to new schools. Children may also have to commute across gang boundaries, especially on the West and South sides.

The CPS spokesperson said safety is a core consideration for school closures and phase-outs, and crossing dangerous neighborhoods will be discussed by the commission.

Truss' wife, Cata, said parents need to voice their opinions to school staff if they want to prevent school closures and play an active role in making sure their children are getting a good education.

"We need to be going into schools and talking to principals about how schools are being used," she said. "Find out where your children are supposed to be, education-wise. You have to go in and say, 'My baby is not where he needs to be.'"

The state created a task force in March 2011 to ensure that any building-related decisions for Chicago schools would include community input.

The task force will be analyzing past CPS data about school actions and will hold community meetings every other week, starting in January, said Jackie Leavy, pro bono advisor for the task force. Those who are interested should email ceftf.ilga@gmail.com to find out final meeting dates.

But the task force will not have an easy time implementing its ideas, said Leavy, a longtime West Side advocate and past member of the Coalition to Save Community Banking.

"The task force struggles to put things into law to provide oversight over Chicago Public Schools," Leavy said.

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