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Editorial: What a ‘half-empty’ school really looks like

Parent KristThomas says Garvey Elementary which is CPS' closure list is well-used well-loved. She is fighting keep it open refuses

Parent Krista Thomas says Garvey Elementary, which is on CPS' closure list, is well-used and well-loved. She is fighting to keep it open and refuses to send her children to their assigned school, calling it inferior. (Kate N. Grossman photo)

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Updated: May 5, 2013 2:51PM



This is what one “half-empty” Chicago public school looks like:

Just about every classroom at Garvey Elementary, a cozy and well-loved Washington Heights school, is in use.

In fact, during a visit on Monday to the school, where colorful and neatly displayed student projects and artwork line bright yellow walls, we didn’t see a single room going unused.

Garvey has air-conditioned classrooms, a well-stocked library, a garden, an art room, a computer lab, several small science labs and the kind of discipline and order in the classroom and hallway that tell a visitor this school has its act together.

These are the things CPS says it wants all schools to have. Of course, most of these strengths and amenities were conveniently left off the fact sheet the school system distributed about Garvey.

On paper, Garvey, with roughly 300 students, is about 50 percent used. Staff say a few rooms aren’t fully used. That’s how it landed among the 54 schools proposed for closure. It’s to be consolidated with Mount Vernon Elementary, three blocks to the south in a quiet residential neighborhood of bungalows on the Far South Side.

This page strongly supports closing severely underused schools. It’s right for those schools, and it’s right for CPS to redirect money from underused schools to enhance other schools, as it plans to do.

But, as we’ve said repeatedly, 54 closures by this summer — affecting 109 schools and about 30,000 kids after receiving schools are added in — is far too many. It is too massive an undertaking to do at all at once.

Two kinds of mistakes are inevitable in such a rush: mistakes while relocating such an unwieldy number of students and mistakes in closing the wrong schools.

Like Garvey.

On our visit, children sure didn’t look “trapped,” as the mayor and the schools chief like to say about students in under-enrolled schools. We didn’t see much flab, either. On a tour of the small building with a parent — the principal wasn’t involved — we saw an intimate school making good use of its space. Parents at many other schools, including Trumbull and Courtenay, also are making good cases for their schools.

Hearings on each proposed closure start Saturday. We urge CPS to listen — which it has done so far in this process — and remove more names from the closure list. CPS says Mount Vernon, a large, recently renovated building, is at 44 percent capacity. It likely has space, but merging it with Garvey makes little sense, especially since Garvey looks better academically.

Yes, Garvey is a “Level 3” school, the lowest rating, and is on probation, while Mount Vernon is a Level 2 and not on probation.

But Garvey is new to probation just this year, while Mount Vernon was on probation from 2005 to 2011. And get this: Mount Vernon progressed to Level 2 in large part because its scores and attendance have grown — an important achievement — but they have grown to be just below Garvey’s level.

At Mount Vernon, 74 percent of students meet state standards. At Garvey, it’s 77 percent. Garvey’s scores have stagnated, the reason it dropped from level 2 to 3 — which is a cause for concern not closure.

Moreover, students and teachers gave significantly higher marks to Garvey than to Mount Vernon in a survey of school culture. In the University of Chicago research-backed survey of key indicators of school success, Garvey outpaced Mount Vernon in every area, earning a “strong” rating, for example, for ambitious instruction and school safety to Mount Vernon’s “weak” ratings.

Our tour guide, parent Christa Thomas is deeply invested in her school’s success and knows almost everyone there. She teaches an after-school dance class at Mount Vernon, where she says the culture is much rougher. A strong rivalry between the schools and gang issues are also a great concern.

She refuses to send her children there and is fighting to save her school.

“They’re taking kids from a calm, family environment and putting them in a stressed one,” she said. “This is not a wasteland.”



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