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Teachers, staff learning to say goodbye — for good — at King Elementary

Betty McMurray sits an empty 8th grade classroom King Elementary School  Thursday June 20 2013 day after last day

Betty McMurray sits in an empty 8th grade classroom at King Elementary School, Thursday June 20, 2013, the day after the last day of school ever for students. McMurray has been teaching at King since 1988 and is unsure of what she will do next year for employment. | Jessica Koscielniak ~ Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 25, 2013 6:11AM

Celeste Morawski lugged yellow posters and a few bags out of King Elementary School, remnants of a happy year of teaching elementary school drama now shoved into the back of her car.

Her classroom now is silent, mostly empty. She never had desks, preferring long tables and rows of old metal folding chairs stamped with “Chicago Bd. of Ed.” — harking back to before the district was called Chicago Public Schools. Kids could paint scenery on the tables and sit in an audience when staging plays this past year. A few posters remain, folded on a table, depicting third-graders’ renditions of the stories, “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Goldilocks and The Three Bears.”

King is one of 48 schools CPS is shuttering now; its children were dismissed Wednesday afternoon likely for the last time, with students from 27 other schools. The last 20 close Monday.

Save a last-minute reprieve from one of the lawsuits in which King is named, the elementary school tucked into a quiet pocket at 740 S. Campbell will not reopen in August.

Hallways are empty. Bulletin boards are coming down, a piece at a time, the construction paper bubbles of each teacher’s name laid on a desk: Ms. Matthews, special education; Ms. Diaz, bilingual teacher; Ms. Lowery, lunchroom manager; Mr. Smith, music.

The engineer is cleaning some personal things out of her own office, though she and the principal will stay through the summer until the building is secure. A classroom is stacked high with piles of empty moving boxes. The records room is mostly packed into some of those boxes.

King’s two-story building, which opened in 1959, enrolled 270 children this year. CPS said it should hold 660 and is just 43 percent full. The district called it “under-utilized,” and then said, unlike top performing schools with low capacity, its test scores weren’t good enough to save it. Supporters pleading to keep King open touted how it blended African-American and Hispanic children without incident and how well it served the 10 percent of its children still learning English.

Last year, King hired Morawski as drama teacher as CPS brought back the arts. It was her first year back teaching after a career that started in schools then moved through businesses and real estate.

“I’ve loved this. This was the most wonderful experience for a first year. I’m going to get emotional, I’m a drama teacher so I’m allowed,” Morawski, 63, told the Sun-Times on Thursday. “You know what I told the principal yesterday: Nobody fell through the cracks.”

King had a music teacher but none for art, so Morawski used drama for children to craft props and costumes — white pilgrim bonnets from stiff paper, backdrops they drew and painted on long paper rolls. Absent a proper auditorium, her third- to sixth-graders staged full plays in her classroom, her seventh- and eighth-graders practiced different sorts of speeches they wrote. Drama got kids who were insecure about their reading to read aloud and then perform.

“It’s a gem,” she said of King. “It’s a precious little gem they’re throwing away.”

Across the hall, Betty McMurray is chatting with an eighth-grade teacher in a dark classroom where desks are shoved to one side. The smart board and document projector have not yet been packed up, nor has the computer. School supplies scatter across the teacher’s desk.

“All I saw was a chalkboard,” she said after visiting the school CPS wants King kids to attend in the fall. “That’s not a better place.”

McMurray, a King veteran since 1988, is still angry about King’s closure.

“You’ve closed my school, you’ve snatched away from me from my livelihood. I do not know when I will get another job, I am trusting in God. I did everything I was supposed to do! I am not somebody on the street, I am a well-educated person.”

McMurray has been teaching algebra to her eighth-graders for years, pushing her kids since, as she put it, “I come from the South,” from an Alabama town whose church once hosted Dr. Martin Luther King. She has taught generations of families.

“I was just thinking about how many kids we’ve gotten through the various families,” McMurray said. “I was looking at class pictures saying I taught Mariah, Myesha, I taught Tony, and then the last kid came through this year and graduated, so there’s so many families, African-American and Hispanic families, [where] I’ve taught four or five kids who’ve come all the way up and graduated out of this school.

“I’ve been sitting here a minute, teaching at this school, and the kids and the families are used to that. They’re used to those two faces, the principal and the assistant principal . . . they’re used to these teachers.

“For weeks now, the principal came on again and said, ‘You have to do your best now. Nobody will know you just like we know all the kids,” she said.

“It’s going to take them a long time to get to know those children.”

She and the other teachers get called to the library for a meeting with the principal, so the main office is manned by a dedicated volunteer.

The office’s walls are covered with old graduation photos: Class of 1976. Class of 1988.

“Mine isn’t up there,” a voice calls out from behind the counter. Ms. C — for Cecelia — herself started at King at age 5 in 1960, the second year of the school’s existence, and graduated eight years later. Her sisters and brothers went to King as well, and their mother still lives a block away. She put her only son through King and still has great-nieces and -nephews at school. She recently spoke with her first-grade teacher, Ms. Bacon. One sister works as a teacher’s aide.

“We’ve all been here,” she said, explaining that the Bolton family has been part of the school since the beginning, and the day after classes ended, Ms. C still is hunkered down being as useful to the principal and teachers as she can.

She never really left. She’s watched principals come and go, seen children grow up to become parents who sent their own children to King.

Here’s how she’ll say goodbye to King: “I don’t. I don’t want to,” she said. “This school has a lot of memories and it was just like a family.”

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