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Jesse Owens’ family voices objection to proposed school closure

Updated: May 19, 2013 7:25AM



To Jesse Owens, all children were champions, the famed Olympian’s daughter said Tuesday evening, trying to save the West Pullman school named for her father from the Chicago Public Schools’ closing list.

Jesse Owens Community Academy is one of 54 schools proposed for closing, and at least a dozen schools named for prominent African Americans on the closing list.

“He called everyone champ, to him every child was a champ, all they needed was the opportunity to be one,” the eldest of Owens’ three daughters, Gloria Owens Hemphill, said at the final hearing for the school’s community to voice or opposition to Owens’ consolidation with Samuel Gompers school.

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens had bested the Nazis at their showcase Olympics in 1936. He won four gold medals, all in track and field events, becoming the most decorated athlete of the Berlin Games. Owens moved to Chicago in 1949 and raised his family here. The school was built in 1980 and named for Owens after he died of lung cancer earlier that year and was buried at Oakwoods Cemetery, 1035 E. 67th St., in the Grand Crossing community.

“Jesse Owens, we will not forget. We remember the wonderful man,” three Owens students sang to the tune of “Grand Old Flag.” “He was Star Trek man, he was a high flying man and forever and ever he will be.”

Owens was an American icon who represented hard work and perseverance, Hemphill continued, flanked by her two younger sisters, Beverly Rankin and Marlene Owens Rankin. And he was given prestigious medals – the Congressional Gold Medal and the Medal of Freedom, she said.

“We are very upset that the Jesse Owens School is even being thought of not to be here anymore,” Hemphill said. “I think we can give him the honor of having the Jesse Owens School in Chicago, Illinois.”

CPS says Owens’ enrollment of 333 students put it under capacity for the space it occupies and therefore should close. Staffers, including a district attorney, laid out CPS’ formal legal case Tuesday evening for Owens’ closure, explaining that Gompers ranks higher using CPS performance measures though both share CPS’ lowest rank and are on academic probation.

But Owens had 336 students enrolled today, teacher Phyllis Whitman said, an addition of three students that puts it at exactly 70 percent capacity or CPS’ threshold to leave schools open.

And unlike most other consolidations, parents and teachers complained at the hearing, this closure in West Pullman won’t save CPS the cost of a building. Children in kindergarten through 3rd grade will remain in what is now the Owens building, 12450 S. State St.; students in 4th through 8th grades will remain in the Gompers facility, 12302 S. State St.

The projected $8.8 million in repairs needed to Owens will still need to be made, said school counselor Tanya Saunders-Wolffe.

District spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the consolidation will provide a continuum from kindergarten through 8th grade under a single principal.

“We believe this will lead to better educational outcomes,” Carroll said. “While we expect the school to operate across two (nearby) buildings next year, we will achieve savings from eliminating leadership and administrative staff redundancies.”

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said earlier Tuesday that the board still had to vote on her closing recommendations.



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