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Byrd-Bennett defends CPS closing plan, insulted by racism charges

Updated: May 5, 2013 2:51PM



The head of the Chicago Public Schools said Wednesday that accusations of racism about her plan to close 54 schools mostly serving black students insult her “as a woman of color.”

Barbara Byrd-Bennett insists that her decision to shutter 54 schools was made after listening to the testimony of more than 20,000 people at dozens of hearings pertaining to school closings.

But parents at schools such as Courtenay Elementary and Barton Elementary that were not up for closing consideration complained Wednesday that their schools nonetheless will drastically change come August, whether by another school moving in, or the staff being fired and replaced.

At a particularly feisty CPS board meeting Wednesday, Byrd-Bennett presented her historically large closure plan that seeks to “right size” a district that she says has 100,000 more seats than children.

Most of the targeted schools are in the city’s black and poorest communities on the West and South sides, but, Byrd-Bennett said, most CPS students are black or Hispanic, so naturally the closings will affect “children of color.”

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who is also African American, has called the planned closures “racist” and “classist.”

“What I cannot understand and what I will not accept is that the proposals I am offering are racist,” Byrd-Bennett said, prompting shouts of “They are!” from the often-raucous crowd.

“To refuse to challenge the status quo that is failing thousands of African American students, that’s what I call racist.”

Addressing safety concerns about children crossing gang lines to get to new schools, Byrd-Bennett said she has no patience for adults who use the “excuse of gangs to leave children trapped in failing schools.”

However, CPS itself considered the gang factor when it agreed with a school closings commission’s recommendation to keep high schools off the closing list out of concern for teens’ safety if gang territories were disrupted.

“The continued input of parents and school communities will be critical in the next weeks and next few months ahead,” Byrd-Bennett said.

Groups from schools not targeted for closing but now proposed for other major changes told the board they felt left out of any discussion. State law governing school closings doesn’t include turnarounds. Each school proposed for consolidation will get three more hearings; each slated for turnaround will get a single public hearing.

Still, Courtenay Elementary parent Wendy Auffant felt “shock and dismay” to learn that children at Courtenay, a small school at 1726 W. Berteau that admits kids not by neighborhood but by lottery, will be sent to Stockton, at 4425 N. Beacon St, which will take the Courtnenay name.

With its classrooms full, Courtenay was not on a final school closure list, Auffant said, so the parents and teachers were “not provided with a community forum as promised by the CPS CEO.”

“It’s insulting and disrespectful,” she said.

Dozens of supporters of Barton Elementary School, 7650 S. Wolcott Ave., which is slated for a turnaround — essentially a staff reboot— also protested at Wednesday’s meeting they were left out of any discussions. Even worse, they said, a representative from the AUSL organization set to take their school over turned up at Barton on Wednesday, weeks before their lone scheduled May 1 public hearing and the board’s May 22 vote.

“The voices of Barton were not heard,” said Sarah Cohen, a professor at Illinois State University which partners with Barton to train CPS teachers. Barton was removed in February from a list of 129 possible schools to be closed, and thought they were safe, she said.

Barton’s Local School Council chair Sonya Williams pointed to the progress the troubled school has made since hiring a new principal two years ago: upticks in standardized test scores and enrollment.

“The data shows that under the current leadership, a turnaround is already taking place. There is every reason to believe this trend will continue,” Williams said. Besides, Barton father John F. Kennedy said, turnaround is no guarantee. Some schools AUSL already turned around are also on CPS probation.

Meanwhile at City Hall, the City Council’s Education Committee held its own hearing on the school closings, well aware that, as chairman Latasha Thomas (17th) made clear at the outset, aldermen are virtually powerless to stop it.

Stacy Davis Gates, the political activities director for the Chicago Teachers Union, suggested “tweaking attendance boundaries” to minimize harm.

“Make no mistake: Moving and disrupting the education of 30,000 students in Chicago — a very vulnerable population of students to begin with — is an audacious task that has never been undertaken by any other city in this country ever,” Davis Gates said. “And the way that we’re doing it — in this condensed amount of time — is troubling,” she said. “We are moving with warp speed with people who deserve our best work.”

Far South Side Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), who initially had five schools on the hit list, but “worked my tail off” to get four of them eliminated, put the CTU official on the hot seat. He asked Davis Gates point-blank if there were any concessions the union was willing to make in order to keep some of the 54 schools open.

The silence was deafening. Davis Gates said nothing for so long, Beale started humming the tune that awaits contestants’ answers on the game show, “Jeopardy.”

She later talked about the need to declare a surplus in tax-increment-financing (TIF) districts and raise the state income tax.

When CPS officials finally testified, Beale fired at them too. He cited a “lack of trust” in the guarantee that displaced students making the longer walk to their new schools will be safe.

“No matter what you all do with this transition, Safe Passage has got to be tight. It has to be in place. We can’t have any problems. We can’t have any hiccups. That’s the biggest concern,” Beale said. “We have to assure these parents that those babies are gonna be safe.”



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