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Closings leave no neighborhood schools in east Humboldt Park

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Updated: July 26, 2013 6:09AM

“Let’s go, friends,” Mrs. Farrell told her first graders early Monday morning, leading them into Alexander von Humboldt Elementary School in Humboldt Park.

“Ready? Yes, yes, yes, yes, it’s the final day, Nancy Farrell said. “We’re going to have such fun!”

As usual, children led the Pledge of Allegiance in unison over the PA system, ending with “Thank you and have a great day.”

Von Humboldt and the school it shares a building with at 2620 W. Hirsch, Ana Roque de Duprey, dismissed their kids one final time Monday, for the most part shuttering all neighborhood schools in this eastern part of Humboldt Park.

Half a mile south, Lafayette Elementary School closed for good Wednesday, another of the 48 schools that Chicago Public Schools does not plan to reopen in August. Erie Elementary Charter School remains a little west on Hirsch but it admits children only by lottery, which around Von Humboldt, doesn’t count as a neighborhood school. And the school CPS recommended as a better option, Jose De Diego Elementary Community Academy, 1313 N Claremont Ave., is across Western Avenue, which community members said is like a world away, though most von Humboldt children have enrolled there.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that schools such as von Humboldt, with just 362 children enrolled in a building that the district says should hold 900, should close to free up tight resources for learning. Adjoining De Duprey, with 92 kids, uses 28 percent of its space, according to district calculations.

Two Board of Education members ­— the people with the voting power to close schools or spare them — cast the only two dissenting votes against closing Von Humboldt in all the school closings, but were outvoted.

“As we close this school year, it is time for us as a city to begin the work of creating a deep and lasting change in our schools to ensure a better life for our children, a better Chicago workforce and a better future for our city,” Byrd-Bennett said in an emailed statement.

Upstairs in von Humboldt’s sweaty gym, 7th grade teacher, Jacob DelDotto, worried what closing the building would do to the neighborhood. He took his job two years ago — after being downsized out of another CPS school — because it was so close to where he had bought a house near Augusta and California.

A school is, to him, “a sign of a good, solid neighborhood,” he said.

“Closing 3 or 4 public schools in this area is going to gut Humboldt Park...The last thing Humboldt Park needs is for a good building like this to rot.”

Angelo Castillo, who graduated from Von Humboldt in 1984 and walked back in to stay as a security officer in 1993, helped draft Safe Passage plans to get his kids to De Diego, telling CPS and the Chicago Police Department that Hirsch Street is the only way to go. The other streets are rife with gang activity, and all bets are off on the eastern side of Western Avenue, he said.

“It’s going to be scary,” Castillo said.

Alicia Heltmach’s second graders finished answering four questions on the board — How will you meet new friends? What will change next year? What are you excited about? What are you nervous about? — and were interviewing each other for another activity: Find a student who was in the hospital this year, who has a brother at this school, and so on.

Heltmach has walked them through nearly all the questions but can’t bring herself to read number 18: Find a student who is not going to be here next year.

After almost 20 years (“my whole career”), nine principals and students whose kids Heltmach now teaches at von Humboldt, she’s hoping to follow her kids to De Diego. She has the tenure and qualifications to do so, but none of the teachers will know until mid-July how many spots will be available.

Two sounds permeate Lucy Principato’s bilingual basement classroom: A voice calling Bingo and the screech of packing tape.

Principato is squeezing in a little more practice with colors with her third graders while volunteer moms and a former student pack up 27 years worth of stuff from her classroom so she can stay off a bad foot.

Her walls are still covered with posters she’s subtitled in Spanish. A tray of treasures — bingo prizes — sits next to the square table around which sit her young players who get extra help a few times a week.

She calls the colors one at a time, asks the kids to use each one in a sentence.

She already splits her time with De Diego, spending a few days at each school. Hopefully she’ll get to stay on full time there, thinking it’ll help her kids’ transition to see her.

“Von Humboldt is not a school,” she’s been telling her kids when they get upset. “It’s not a building or walls, it’s a place where you feel secure.”

Yet its disappearance will hurt the neighborhood. “Lots of families and generations have been coming here.”

Back in Mrs. Farrell’s room, the first graders are learning about the word “farewell” as Mrs. Farrell has called them into a “farewell circle” on the colored carpet.

“Let’s make a circle for the last time,” she said gently. “‘Farewell’ means goodbye, it means ‘adios.’”

She has the children right and left congratulate each other on making it through the first grade and wish each other luck in the second. Then she asks them to tell the next child going counterclockwise something nice. She begins so they’ll have an example, telling the little girl on her right as she wipes her eyes, “Remember to keep that smile and never ever think you can’t do something.”

The circle comes back to her as Jaylen Sanders, 7, said quietly: “I will miss everybody but” to his teacher, “especially I will miss you.”

Contributing: Stefano Esposito and Mitch Dudek

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