Dawyne TrussCommunity activist

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.

With Lewis Elementary as one of the 129 schools CPS is considering closing, supporters of the Austin school have questioned how CPS arrived at the space utilization figures for each school.

Lewis is one of seven “under-enrolled schools” in Austin on the list. CPS is slated to make a final decision at the end of March. The schools selected could close in June.

The other Austin schools are Armstrong, DePriest, Emmet, Key, May and McNair. The group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education did its own analysis of underused schools and found that CPS’ formula “works to both exaggerate underutilization and underreport overcrowding.”

Lewis had about 569 students enrolled as of last September. CPS, however, insists the school could be educating 1,050 students, making it 54 percent utilized. Not all of Lewis is being used, because it’s currently under construction, said Cheryl Welbel, a fifth-grade teacher at Lewis, at CPS’ Feb. 13 community meeting.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Welbel said. “How can we put students in there if it’s under construction?”

In May 2012, CPS announced Austin-area schools were slated to receive roughly $12 million. That money was as part of its $110 million, five-year capital improvement plan to address immediate health and safety concerns for its public schools.

Lewis is slated to receive the most money — about $8.4 million – out of the Austin schools to repair its deteriorating roof and to replace the school’s structural system. A CPS spokesperson confirms that those repairs are underway.

Dwayne Truss, vice-chair of the Austin Community Action Council, wonders why CPS is considering shutting down a school that it’s already pumped money into for improvements.

The district says it’s facing a $1 billion budget deficit by this summer and needs to shut down some underutilized schools. CPS has until March 31 to decide which schools will close.

But closing Lewis and other schools that were built recently, or have undergone improvements, would “blow a hole” through CPS’ rationale of shuttering neighborhood schools to save money, according to Truss.

“Why spend all the money and then close them down?” he said.

‘High-performing schools’ off list

CPS spokesperson Robyn Ziegler said the district considers the repairs at Lewis an emergency that can’t wait or be ignored. But Truss argues that slated capital improvements should help knock an under-enrolled school off of CPS’ list. High schools and high-performing schools are off the table, district officials have said.

And the list was narrowed after CPS announced in early February that it would not close schools with more than 600 students, among other criteria.

Ziegler stressed the process is far from over, and there are “many other things” CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett will take into consideration before making final recommendations.

Ziegler added that CPS encourages people to continue to express their concerns and needs to the district.

But Barbara Radner, associate professor and director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, said she’s not sure recent building improvements would knock a school off the list. If anything, the recent renovations might make the school more attractive to a potential buyer, such as a charter school, she added.

Neither Lewis Principal Kathy Jenkins nor Assistant Principal Elwanda Butler responded to AustinTalks’ multiple requests for interviews.

Fifth-grade teacher Welbel urged CPS officials at the Feb. 13 meeting to work with the school and not close it.

“We’re battling. We’re making it. We’re progressing,” Welbel said. “The last thing we want to do is tell our kids start at the bottom again. That’s wrong.”

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

About 48.1 percent of students met or exceeded state standards on the ISAT in 2012, slightly down from 55.7 percent in 2011. About 48 percent of students met or exceeded standards in 2010. Reading, science and math scores had a slight bump from 2010 to 2011 but decreased in 2012, CPS data shows.

“Don’t stop us,” Welbel said. “All of us teachers at Leslie Lewis, we’re putting our blood, sweat and tears into these kids. I love my kids like they’re my own sons and daughters, and this is not the message I’m going to send them.”

The school offers a variety of extracurricular programs and after-school activities, which make Lewis a valuable asset to the community, school advocates said at the meeting.

The school offers band, choir and mural painting for students. It also has mentoring courses for girls and boys, and a handful of sport and fitness opportunities such as softball, golf, wrestling and track.

The Black Star Project and the Black Ensemble Theater also have partnerships with the school, Welbel said.

The school’s other programs include a journalism club, poetry workshops, and a Real Men Read and Young Authors program. Lewis offers half-day preschool and full-day kindergarten, as well.

“We have 30 students waiting to get into our pre-k,” Welbel said.

Wanda Hopkins, a community Local School Council representative at Lewis, is worried that if the school closes, it could result in more neighborhood violence. That issue, in particular, has been a key concern among education advocates in Austin, she stressed.

“I say to the [Chicago] Board of Education, ‘How dare you?'” Hopkins said at the meeting. “With the amount of children that’s dying in the city of Chicago, how dare you? Closing schools and consolidating schools kills children.”

Mario Lekovic 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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