Robert Emmet Elementary, 5500 W. MadisonDAISY WINFREY/Contributor

This is 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.

Student safety continues to be a key concern among Austin community members fighting to keep Robert Emmet Elementary and other neighborhood schools open.

Just hours after Chicago Public Schools released its whittled down list of potential school closings — one West Side education activist held up a map of gang boundaries in Austin at the second CPS community hearing in the Austin-North Lawndale Network.

“This is what our babies, our kids have to go through,” Dwayne Truss, vice-chair of the Austin Community Action Council, said at the Feb. 13 meeting.

The 15th Police District gang boundary map showed Emmet and other neighborhood schools surrounded by street blocks shaded in yellow, red and blue, representing what Truss said are gang territories

He is fearful that the 458 students who attend Emmet, along with Austin’s other students, won’t be safe if their schools close and they are forced to travel to another school next year across gang boundaries.

“Their kids don’t have to go through this,” Truss said, referring to members of the Chicago Board of Education.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) said he, too, worries about what school closings could mean for West Side students.

“I’m sick of going to funerals,” Ervin said at the Feb. 13 meeting. “I’m sick of going to jails. I’m sick of going all these places when our kids need to be in the classroom.”

Student safety, along with school utilization, building quality and the ability to provide affected students with higher-performing options, is guiding the CPS process of determining school actions, district officials have said.

CPS initially released a list of 330 under-enrolled schools across the district — including more than a dozen in Austin — that could be closed but narrowed it down to 129 last Wednesday.

A total of 16 schools in the Austin-North Lawndale Network are on the 129-school list — seven are in Austin.

“I want to emphasize that 129 is under consideration. They will not all be closed,” said Adam Anderson of CPS’ Office of Portfolio, Planning and Strategy at last week’s meeting.

High schools and high-performing schools are off the list, and CPS also said last week it will not shut down schools with more than 600 students, schools that recently experienced a school action or are in the process of adding grades, among other criteria.

“CEO Byrd-Bennett has said she won’t close a school if we can’t ensure that students will be safe,” CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said.

The district is expected to make final school closing recommendations no later than March 31.

The Chicago Teachers Union has repeatedly called for a moratorium on school closings. It has also asked CPS to study the impact of school closings over the last decade and share what the impact has been.

“Releasing the number of schools still under consideration is not a plan — what is CPS’ plan for potentially closing more than 100 schools and sending children to receiving schools?” a recent CTU press release asked. “Where are the specific safety protocols?”

CPS said high schools are off the table, due to recommendations from a committee that suggested closing secondary schools could lead to an increased risk of gang violence.

“Children are rambunctious, and as many of Chicago’s elementary school teachers will tell you, violence does not start in high school,” CTU’s recent statement said.

Emmet is 66 percent utilized. It has an enrollment of 458 students with an ideal capacity of 690 students, according to CPS.

The elementary school has the lowest of the three academic performance ratings — Level 3 — and is on probation.

For the 2011-2012 academic year, 70.4 percent of students met or exceeded state standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), according to CPS. That’s down from about 74 percent for the 2010-2011 school year.

Emmet did receive the state’s Academic Improvement Award in 2010, as reported by AustinTalks.

The school received the award for having an upward trend in test scores for at least three years. It also had a 7.5-point increase for the year or a 15-point increase in test scores over the past two years, according to the Illinois Interactive Report Card’s website.

Neither Emmet’s Principal Jacqueline Robinson nor Assistant Principal Milo Love returned AustinTalks’ interview requests.

Emmet student Brittany Sanders said CPS should be investing in schools, not closing them.

“Rahm Emanuel and Barbara [Byrd-Bennett] need to come out and support our schools, and they should not be coming out trying to tear our schools down,” Sanders said at the meeting.

Emmet, 5500 W. Madison St., is located within State Rep. La Shawn Ford’s 8th District. He said Austin needs stability and can’t afford to close schools.

“I don’t like the idea of closing schools in a community that is in danger and has had so many recent closures — from their YMCA to Austin High School and all of the Catholic schools pretty much closing down in Austin, and now these school closings,” he said, observing that CPS should use extra space in underused schools for more early childhood education and kindergarten for all children.

“In Austin, we have a lot of young kids between the ages of 5 and 7 that we could fill these schools up with full-day or half-day kindergarten,” Ford said.

Emmet offers half-day preschool and full-day kindergarten.

“When they talk about [the schools being] underutilized, that’s good because now we can have smaller class sizes,” Ford said, adding that extra space can also be used to provide arts programming, among other uses.

Lettrice Jamison, the Emmet Local School Council president, has four children who currently attend the school. She’s upset Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett have yet to speak with Austin residents about their schools.

“We need to keep [Emmet] open, and we need to see Barbara and Rahm Emanuel come out and tell us why they are trying to close our schools,” Jamison said at a press conference before last week’s hearing.

In a follow-up interview, Jamison said she’s heard of children starting to mesh into gang life as young as fifth grade. She’s worried children who are already in gangs will influence students at Emmet if it closes and they go to another school.

“How will those kids be acting with those types of attitudes?” Jamison said.

Rep. Ford said his “hands are tied” as far as preventing closures.

When the Illinois General Assembly gave former Mayor Richard M. Daley control over CPS in 1995 it took all control away from the legislature, he said.

“As a state legislator, we have to work hard to encourage the mayor and aldermen to do anything they can to provide a quality education, but right now it’s the mayor’s call,” Ford said.

Advocate Truss stressed that student safety needs to come first.

“Why are we going to add fuel to the fire and put our kids in harm’s way?” he said.

“Kids in Iraq get better protection from U.S. forces than our children get from the Chicago Police Department. This is really about kids and our kids’ safety.”

Reema Amin and Patrick Smith contributed to this story. Read the rest of the series at In next weeks paper, McNair Elementary.