A nearly empty room of supporters quickly filled last week as parents, teachers and community leaders made their last remarks on the school closings slated for Austin.

The final list for the 54 Chicago public schools slated to close will be voted on May 22 by the Chicago Board of Education.

“I feel like they already made their mind up,” said Kelly Bodkin, an art teacher at Louis Armstrong Elementary. Armstrong, a level 2 school that will be combined with May and Leland students in the current May building – though the school will be called Leland.

Based on CPS standards, Armstrong is considered 65 percent underutilized. Armstrong, May, Emmet and Key are slated for closure based on the space utilization criteria.

Like parents from other Austin schools, Armstrong supporters fear for their childrens’ safety as they cross gang lines and pass drug dealers to get to their “receiving” schools.

“The kids talked to me about their concerns,” Bodkin said. “Any time there is a change in Austin, you definitely fear for safety.”

As the public comment portion of the hearing held April 25 at the CPS Headquarters, 125 S. Clark St. continued, some speakers criticized other schools in hope of keeping their school opened.

“This process has been distressing. And tonight was the first time I really witnessed this process pinning schools against each other,” said Ald. Deborah Graham (29th). “It is disheartening, and it puts each of the schools in an awkward situation.”

Graham urged CPS officials to find the money “like they always do” and fund the schools so they can remain open.

In arguing for their school, Armstrong supporters told the arbitrator – a former Austin resident – that Leland’s evaluation was based on just 20 students and that May is a level 3 school.

Dwayne Truss, A Raise Your Hand board member and Austin resident, said the situation was uncomfortable and unfortunate for everybody.

“[CPS] put us in this predicament,” Truss said. “We’re being pinned against each other.”

Graham said this wouldn’t be the case if CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had kept her promise.

“Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she would not disturb schools that were making progress,” said Graham, adding that all three schools have improved.

A sea of purple—Armstrong’s color— overwhelmed the room, while only a few May supporters showed up. May advocates also boycotted the school’s first community meeting on April 6.

Truss, who helped organize the May boycott, proposed an alternative plan and submitted it to the arbitrator at Thursday’s meeting.

“I submitted [the plan], but we will see what happens with it,” said Truss.

Leslie Lewis Elementary is slated to be a turnaround school. The public hearing for Lewis is May 2 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the CPS Headquarters downtown, 125 S. Clark St.

Key and Douglass should merge, not Ellington, supporters say

Those who don’t want to see Francis Scott Key Elementary School close this summer came up with an alternative solution: move students and teachers to the high school across the street.

Parents, teachers and Ald. Graham presented that plan at a public hearing at Chicago Public Schools headquarters downtown on April 17. Based on CPS standards, the school—with 306 students enrolled—is only 55 percent utilized. Residents suggested that Key students and staff move to its underutilized neighbor, Frederick A. Douglass High School at 243 N. Waller.

Douglass has a total of 15 empty classrooms in the building, according to Emlyn Ricketts, an attorney and member of Friends of Key. Each of these rooms, she said, could hold about 20 students if all 306 Key children moved across the street to the high school.

“Classrooms are often bursting with 35 students and one teacher,” Ricketts said of Key. She has worked with students at the elementary school.

If the school is approved for closure at the May 22 Chicago Board of Education meeting, students will move to Ellington Elementary next year.

CPS will implement programs to help students safely transition to their new, welcoming schools, said Chandra James, chief of schools for CPS’s Austin-North Lawndale network.

Mainly, the CPS Office of Safety and Security would take steps to ensure students felt safe walking to the new school. That office would also ensure there were enough Safe Passage employees monitoring the streets, James said.

But Angela Graham, Local School Council president at Key, said she doesn’t fully trust Safe Passage employees. She said she has often seen the employees texting on their phones and not paying full attention to students as they walk to school.

Ald. Graham also argued that children would have to make their way through gang lines and walk past a halfway house on Central Avenue. She said residents from this house often walk around at their own leisure, and she’s afraid of students mixing with them.

“There’s mentally ill patients and sex offenders there,” Graham said. “On the other side of the street, drug dealers hang out there.”

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