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193 Chicago elementary schools not safe from closing

Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett speaks City Club Chicago lunch Maggiano's Banquets. File photo. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks at the City Club of Chicago lunch at Maggiano's Banquets. File photo. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 21, 2013 6:44AM

It’s not quite “The List” of schools slated for closing or consolidation by June.

But for the first time this year, Chicago Public Schools officials definitively ruled out some of the schools that will be spared from closing or consolidation.

The rest at this point number nearly 200 based on three recommendations that CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett approved Friday from her handpicked panel, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis.

High schools are safe, so are the highest-performing — or Level 1 ­— elementary schools, and a few schools that are still growing grade by grade into their buildings, Byrd-Bennett said Friday.

That leaves 193 elementary schools that have not yet been spared and could be subject to drastic action, the Sun-Times has found.

The district won’t release its own preliminary list of schools that could need defending to survive drastic school actions until Feb. 13 after Byrd-Bennett figures out how to deal with three other panel recommendations. But the Sun-Times found there are 10 schools that the panel advised against closing because they have more than 600 students. They also want open 20 schools that underwent a “significant school action” in the last two years and 14 schools open that are close to being “efficient.” Thirteen more schools are both over 600 in enrollment and close to “efficient.”

Byrd-Bennett acknowledged Friday that not everyone will agree with her decisions, though she emphasized that she hasn’t made them on her own.

“I want to state very, very publicly that the work around addressing severe utilization around our schools is going to be very difficult,” she said of the system she inherited. “This is not just about closing schools for closing’s sake or consolidating schools for consolidating’s sake, this is about addressing our crisis so we can get along with the business of educating Chicago’s children.”

This year CPS decided to base closures and consolidations on how empty or full a building was, rather than a school’s academic performance. That process of replacing staffs in schools with terrible academic track records hasn’t yet begun.

Officials said first they wanted to redirect money spent to heat and repair crumbling buildings to classrooms. The district will soon face a $1 billion budget shortfall.

But that change sparked confusion and frustration in a school year that began with the chaos of a monumental teachers strike. On Friday, a new controversial school calendar was announced that will send children back to classrooms before Labor Day for the first time in over a decade. The last time the district tried a similar start date, nearly a quarter of its students failed to appear for class.

“This year it’s a budget crisis, next year it’s performance. And it’s OK to implement failed education policy because you’re doing it to black kids and brown kids,” said Jitu Brown, from the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

And though the highest performing schools won’t cease to exist, they could be subject to change. The Level 1 schools with low enrollment likely will welcome children from schools that close nearby, Byrd-Bennett said.

Brown fears that introducing too many new children at once could destabilize good neighborhood schools as happened a few years ago when Beethoven Elementary took in the students displaced from the closing of nearby Farren Elementary.

Beethoven, once home to a “dynamic principal,” decent test scores and lots of wraparound services, is now on CPS probation, in the district’s worst performing category.

“That is classic sabotage,” Brown said.

Its enrollment also is low, about 389 in a building CPS says could hold 900.

Chopin Elementary, home to 267 kids in a building CPS says is supposed to hold 720, will be saved by its high test scores. That’s bittersweet for Beverly Allebach, who teaches language arts and social studies to seventh- and eighth-graders at the small Humboldt Park grade school.

Chopin lost a 14-year-old graduate last week — a boy Allebach taught for two years who was fatally shot a few blocks from the school. The school community mourned with his family.

“That’s what a small school can do, and that’s how we feel about our students,” she said. “We know our students. Our students know us.”

She’s still concerned that other neighborhood schools will close, though hers will be spared.

“When you take them away from their schools, you take them away from adults that they trust.”

“I’m glad of course that our school’s not going be closed.”

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