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Editorial: Top school a potential closure casualty

Eighth-grade students Kimberly Hernandez 13 KeshannPope 14 get extrattentifrom student teacher Jose Flores ChopSchool which 2011 served 96 percent low-income

Eighth-grade students Kimberly Hernandez, 13, and Keshanna Pope, 14, get extra attention from student teacher Jose Flores at Chopin School, which in 2011 served 96 percent low-income students but came in 21st in the state for its middle-school reading and

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Updated: May 30, 2013 2:14PM

In theory, Chopin Elementary, a sturdy red-brick school in Humboldt Park, can easily absorb just about every kid from Lafayette Elementary, another under-enrolled school a few blocks away.

But at what price?

Too hefty of one, in our view.

Chopin may be yet another casualty of the school system’s rush to close 53 under-enrolled grammar schools this summer and consolidate them with 55 others, affecting 30,000 students.

A vote on the mergers is set for May 22, giving the schools CEO or the school board mere weeks to admit its mistakes, as with Lafayette and Chopin, and reverse course.

Chopin is a gem of a school that has worked its tail off to earn CPS’ highest performance rating, a gold star “Level 1” school, a particularly notable achievement as 91 percent of its 275 students are low-income.

But packing Chopin with as many as 400 extra students from neighboring Lafayette jeopardizes much of what has made it thrive: small class sizes, an intimate environment, room to spread out. Even if Chopin ends up below capacity, as CPS predicts, the risks remain very real.

“We’re doing as well as we are at Chopin because we’re a small community,” Beverly Allebach, a Chopin teacher for 15 years, said at a recent community meeting.

And the potential price for Lafayette, a beloved but lower-performing school that has a large special-needs population and an outstanding string orchestra program, both of which require a tremendous amount of space?

More losses.

Both schools are severely under-used. But by packing Chopin’s creaky old building to near its capacity of 720 students, it’s hard to see how Lafayette’s programs can be replicated faithfully. For music, Lafayette uses six rooms — four for practice, two to store equipment. It’s the largest such program in CPS. For special education, it uses 14 rooms, including five where students spend most of the day and class size range from eight to 17.

Chopin has only 32½ rooms, we confirmed on a recent visit.

CPS say it now realizes Chopin’s limits and expect to send students in four of Lafayette’s five high-need rooms to Lowell School.

But that still leaves 10 rooms needed at Chopin. That likely can be pared down, but Chopin, which also has many high special needs students, still has just 32 rooms.

To make it work, Chopin likely will have to discontinue some of what it offers now, boost class size or both. Just ask Allebach. In her early years, enrollment topped 800 and class sizes were in the mid-30s, a time when Chopin did not perform nearly as well.

If Chopin puts at least 30 kids in each room — as it is allowed, up from ranges in the mid-20s now — almost every room must be a homeroom. That’s almost guaranteed given the expected large special needs population, a reality that’s not reflected in CPS’ flawed school utilization formula. This could jeopardize space used for library, music, art, after-school classes and storage (Chopin has no basement).

CPS counters that even if everyone from Lafayette transfers, including every special-needs student, which won’t happen, the school will be at 99 percent capacity. CPS also notes, fairly, that it is unlikely that every Lafayette student will pick Chopin. In the past, many have opted against their designated school, though time to find another is very short this year.

Fair enough. But given a formula that packs kids in a building, we still have grave concerns about potential damage to a gem like Chopin.

Other schools will stretch well beyond capacity if all or most students transfer: Bret Harte could reach 110 percent; L. Ward, 108 percent; Otis, 88 percent, but it’s at risk because of a large special-needs population. The group Raise Your Hand identified eight other schools.

You want every kid to find a seat at a school like Chopin. But not if the flood of new students jeopardizes its very nature.

CPS has made good decisions. We had doubts about Ellington School in Austin, but a recent visit assured us that students who transfer will find an excellent new home.

The Chopin and Lafayette merger does not pass that test.

Do the modest savings CPS will generate from this move justify the potential losses?

We think not.

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