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129 CPS schools at risk of closing; West Side parents vow to fight

Citizens Parents school students from Chalmers school hold up rally signs Wednesday evening House Prayer Church God during open meeting

Citizens, Parents, and school students, from Chalmers, school hold up rally signs Wednesday evening House of Prayer Church of God during a open meeting with Chicago Public Schools to save neighborhood schools from closing. February 13 , 2013 I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 19, 2013 12:15PM

The West Side took it on the chin Wednesday in the list of Chicago Public Schools at risk of closing — but residents who packed a CPS hearing vowed not to give up the fight.

“No schools closing,” “save our schools,” shouted folks from the Austin-North Lawndale network, where 16 elementary schools now must make the case they should not be closed in June, crowding the House of Prayer Church of God in Christ.

“Everywhere you go there are a lot of gangs and guns and violence, and now they want to send our kids into unfamiliar streets they don’t even know,” said Janice Thompson, who has twin six-year-olds at Crown Elementary School. “Keep Crown open.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) stood up too: “The kids in Lincoln Park, we want the same things those kids have ... anything other than that ain’t gonna fly.”

A few hours earlier, Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had released a list of 129 vulnerable schools, mostly from the South and West sides. The schools she will in fact close in June all are among the names on this list, but not all on the list will close. She encouraged communities of schools on the list to testify at the second round of CPS hearings before she announces her final decision by March 31.

Among the schools targeted are three designated special education schools — Montefiore in Little Italy, Near North in West Town and Buckingham in Calumet Heights. Five more — Herzl Elementary School, Fuller Elementary, Piccolo Elementary, Stagg Elementary and Woodson Elementary — are in their first year of academic turnaround, meaning their students got all new teachers this school year.

And both community schools in the isolated Altgeld Gardens neighborhood are on the list.

Byrd-Bennett said Wednesday she’ll now spare schools with more than 600 children, schools with at least 70 percent capacity and schools either isolated from others or surrounded by schools without any more room.

She also agreed she won’t touch another group of schools including those recently impacted by school closings — ones that received kids from shuttered schools in the last three years or had another school move into its building this year.

The district will not say how many schools will actually be closed in June, citing an ongoing process. By March 31, Byrd-Bennett must also reveal the names of schools that will receive displaced students.

“It certainly alleviates tension for close to 200 schools. You’re not on the list. You’ll now know the process is working,” Byrd-Bennett said by telephone. “I am not going to close a school unless the children in that school have an option to be transferred by choice to a higher performing school.”

Meanwhile she still has to screen contenders for security concerns.

“I will not close any school where I don’t have confidence that children will have a safe and smooth transition at welcoming schools next fall,” said Byrd-Bennett, who closed 30 schools while working in Detroit.

The schools chief, who said CPS had 330 underutilzied neighborhood and charter schools, appointed an independent commission last fall to research how best to select schools to close, and immediately accepted its recommendations to leave high performing elementary schools and high schools alone. That left a pool of almost 200 schools as targets.

Her added criteria Wednesday reduced that pool to 129 community elementary schools. Safe for now are the charters, which are subject to different rules.

The South Side Burnham Park network has the most schools at risk, with 24, followed by 19 in Englewood-Gresham. Austin-North Lawndale has 16; the network covering Garfield Park and Humboldt Park has 14.

West Side residents got their chance to complain at a previously scheduled hearing. South Siders and others will get their chance in coming weeks.

Byrd-Bennett’s handpicked commission doesn’t want any more than 20 schools closed in any single year so everyone involved will be prepared to adjust to the upheaval, sources have told the Sun-Times. A source close to the commission added there is “no urgency” to close 100 schools since consolidating won’t save money immediately.

CPS estimated each closed school would save $500,000 to $800,000. The district says it’ll face a $1 billion deficit by summer, and it has too few kids for too many school seats.

It calculated each school’s “utilization” — how empty or full a school is — based on a formula of 30 children per homeroom class.

That doesn’t work for schools such as Trumbull Elementary, with high special education populations — 32 percent at the Andersonville school. Trumbull has eight special education homerooms, each allowed just seven children a piece, said Ali Burke, a mother and local school council member.

“We truly believe this was a mistake on their part,” Burke said of CPS’s closing formula. “And I can’t tell you the amount of time and resources we’ve had to exhaust on this. We could be spending all this time and resources with the kids.”

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who has been calling for a moratorium on school closings, called the number on the preliminary list “insane” and “cruel.”

“We’re going to now have people begging for their schools and it’s going to be a sad difficult process, but that’s how things are at CPS,” she said.

Phyllis Palmer of the Aldridge Elementary LSC said she’ll fight to make sure CPS doesn’t close it and Carver.

“These are the only two schools in this area and these kids would have to transition out of this area on a bus through gang territory,” Palmer said.

“All these are my children because they live in the community. All these kids are my kids.”

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles and Mitch Dudek

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