Months of wondering ended on March 21 for thousands of West Side families when officials from Chicago Public Schools announced that four Austin schools will close in June.
A fifth school will see its entire staff replaced.
CPS released a complete list of school closings last Thursday. It outlined dozens of school actions, including the closure of 53 buildings across the city. CPS sent letters home to South and West Side students who will be affected.
Teachers and staff at Francis Scott Key, Louis Armstrong, Horatio May and Robert Emmet elementary schools received notice Thursday morning that they will be closed next school year. Principals from all four schools did not return calls for comment.
Student from these schools will be sent to neighboring schools, which raises concern with many parents and teachers about safety — something CPS officials said they would consider when deciding which schools to close.
Chivonda Nelson, a teacher at Key, 517 N. Parkside Ave., said concern about gang activity looms over the students. Those kids, she adds, will be walking across Lake Street to the neighboring Edward K. Ellington Elementary School this fall.
“[People] hang out all day [on Lake Street]…” said Nelson. “They’re walking past a lot of gang activity.”
In fact, Nelson said students already tell her they’re sometimes scared to walk to Key.
Wendell Smith, the dean of students at Key, said the school wasn’t underutilized, one of the main criteria CPS officials said they considered in the months-long process. Rather, the 80-year-old building was too old and too expensive for CPS to maintain, Smith said.
Emmet students — who also will attend Ellington —will face safety issues as well, said people associated with the school.
Jurrate Moore, a teacher at Emmet, 5500 W. Madison St., said she fears for the many Emmet students who walk to and from school by themselves. Now, these children will be walking on their own at a farther distance through an area known for gang activity.
And students are not just in danger during their commute, said Emmet’s Local School President Lettrice Jamison.
Too many students at Emmet fight with each other, said Jamison, and the drama could escalate when they see new faces at the receiving school.
“They’ve been fighting with each other,” she said. “Now their different cliques and gangs are going to get together at Ellington, and a lot more kids are going to fight.”
One May Elementary teacher said combining May, Armstrong and Leland students does not pose a similar risk.
Safety is not a major concern because of the three schools’ different age and grade groups, said Asif Wilson, a seventh and eighth grade science teacher at May. Leland is pre-school through third grade; Armstrong is third through sixth grade; May is pre-school through eight grades.
Some schools face consolidation
Armstrong and May will be combined with students from Leland at the current May building. Leland — which is not closing — does not have a big enough building to hold students from all three schools.
“When you compare the thee buildings, May is by far the largest,” Wilson said.
One great-grandparent who serves as Leland’s Local School Council president said she was sad to see Armstrong close but thinks the combination will work out fine.
“I was hoping and praying that they kept the school open because I like the small school,” said Margaret Berry, who has two great-grandchildren at Armstrong. “I’ve had all my kids and grandkids go through that school.”
Wilson, along with the rest of the staff at May and Armstrong, will be laid off, while Leland’s staff will take over. May and Armstrong staff can re-apply for unfilled positions at the new school.
“The only teachers that have a guaranteed spot are from Leland,” said Wilson.
CPS officials said consolidating schools will help students get the resources they have been cheated out of at their soon-to-be closed schools.
CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has said that each welcoming school, or a building like May that will receive students from other schools, will get new resources. Those include a library, air conditioning in every classroom, new funds for principals to invest in student programs and upgrades for science and technology.
Six schools in the city are slated for a turnaround, including Austin’s Leslie Lewis Elementary, 1431 N. Leamington Ave.
AustinTalks reporters were told Thursday that no member of the staff is allowed to speak with media without the principal’s permission, and Lewis Principal Kathy Jenkins declined to comment.
Last year, CPS invested $8.4 million into repairing the deteriorating roof and replacing the level-three school, the lowest of three rankings CPS uses to categorize academic performance.
The school closings and turnarounds will affect many families, including those who have multiple breadwinners working at the same school, said Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson.
“The economic base of the community is going to be further disrupted,” said Johnson. “There are families that are tied to the buildings.”
The closings, he adds, were a clear indication that the mayor is not interested in what taxpayers want. Mayor Rahm Emanuel did not publicly comment on the closings — he is reportedly on a ski trip.
“At a time when thousands of people’s lives are going to be disrupted, he’s on vacation. That shows just a void of leadership in this city,” Johnson said.
While these four schools prepare to shut down, two others that were on the preliminary list escaped closure: Oscar DePriest Elementary School, 139 Parkside Ave., and Ronald E. McNair Elementary School, 4820 W. Walton St.
“I think our school’s got a lot more going on then some of them they plan on closing,” said Anthony Coleman, a parent of two DePriest students.
Coleman said the school has a good program for autistic children and thinks that may be the reason the school will remain open.
Officials from DePriest and McNair did not return calls for comment.