Parents, teachers tout rising test scores to save Armstrong

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By Ellyn Fortino

AustinTalks.org

Part one of AustinTalks' series on the seven Austin schools that remain on Chicago Public Schools' list of potential closings released recently. The schools are: Armstrong, DePriest, Emmet, Key, Lewis, May and McNair.

Advocates for keeping Louis Armstrong Math and Science Elementary School open say the school's academic performance is on the rise, and it should be removed from Chicago Public Schools' list of possible school closings.

The school, 5345 W. Congress Pkwy., has seen a nearly 40 percent increase in the number of students meeting or exceeding standards on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) from 2010 to 2012.

Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) highlighted Armstrong and Austin's other schools' rising test scores at a Feb. 13 CPS community hearing in the Austin-North Lawndale Network.

In addition to Armstrong, DePriest, Emmet, Key, Lewis, May and McNair are also on the list. In all, 129 schools citywide could close in June. Graham said she's toured nearly every Austin school on the list and has looked at the services they offer.

She said she's seen "our children go from one point to the other."

"I've seen third graders write book reports. I've never seen that before for our children," Graham said, "so I know our schools are moving in leaps and bounds."

The number of Armstrong students meeting or exceeding ISAT standards in reading jumped from about 44 percent in 2010 to 61 percent in 2012. About 53 percent of students met or exceeded reading standards in 2011. Science and math scores have also increased.

Armstrong had about 98 students enrolled as of mid-September 2012. An ideal capacity, according to CPS, would be 270 students, making it 36 percent utilized. One teacher at Armstrong, Nicole Shere, said at January's CPS community meeting that the small school allows teachers to build stronger relationships with their students.

"We are changing lives. We are a community school, and not only do we work together with our students, we work together with our parents and our adults in the Austin community," Shere said.

The school, she added, has also recently moved from a Level 3 academic performer to a Level 2 — the second highest of three academic ratings. And the school also believes in empowering the parents and making them feel welcome, says Kimberly Cooper, parent of a sixth-grader and one of the school's Local School Council parent representatives.

Parents are invited to observe their children's classrooms for 20 minutes several times during the school year, Cooper noted.

"As a parent, I love to watch my child in (his) classroom environment to see how he is learning," she said at the Feb. 13 meeting. "I also walk away with several ideas on how I can better help him to do his homework. This is so important to me."

A 'vital part of the community'

Shere added that Armstrong is a "very vital part" of the Austin community. It offers GED programs and yoga classes in the early morning, among other services. But Tangie Bryant, who has a sixth-grade son at Armstrong, is concerned about where her child and other students will go if the school closes.

"I got a flier from a charter school in Humboldt Park, and I'm like, how are they gonna go there?" Bryant said. "That's so far. I can walk (to Armstrong)."

Neither Armstrong Principal Demetrius Juanita Bunch nor its assistant principal returned AustinTalks' calls for comment. The district says it's facing a $1 billion budget deficit by this summer and needs to close some "underutilized" schools.

CPS has until March 31 to reveal the final schools it plans to close.

Barbara Radner, associate professor and director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, insists there's "no way" CPS could close all 129 schools on its list, because it would be too complicated to do so.

"It's out of the question," she said.

Adam Anderson of CPS' Office of Portfolio, Planning and Strategy confirmed at the West Side meeting the 129 schools are under consideration but won't all close.

CPS spokesperson Robyn Ziegler said the process is far from over, and CPS encourages people to continue to express their concerns to the district. Until the final recommendations are made, schools should focus on student learning as much as possible, Radner said, opposed to "are we all worried we aren't going to be here next year."

"Let's focus on doing the best job we can so our kids don't pay a price now from distractions from learning," Radner said.

Radner added that all the school-closing talk has actually been a "good civics lesson" for students, but now it's time to get back to science, math and reading lessons.

Ald. Michael Chandler (24th), however, said CPS should continue to operate half-empty school buildings.

"There (are) rich folks in this country; they pay to send their child to a school that is not overcrowded," Chandler said at the West Side meeting. "That is a good thing in every place else. We are keeping a good thing here in Chicago."

Under-enrolled schools are not just a school issue, professor Radner said, they're a Chicago problem.

Communities in the city, including Austin, have lost jobs and families because of the economy, she explains — with those losses are typically concentrated in high-poverty areas.

CPS shouldn't only say it is going to close schools,

Radner agues, but instead say "here is what we are going to do to provide communities with more opportunities, not some ribbon cutting ceremonies."

But fixing hard-struck communities isn't all within CPS' purview, she added.

"We're back to the mayor and the aldermen," she said. "They have got to do something so we don't have shrinking communities."

Reema Amin contributed to this story. Read the rest of the series at AustinTalks.org. In next week's paper: DePriest and Key schools.

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