Chicago Public Schools officials gathering input on school closings started taking notes when the director of a local Boys and Girls Club of Chicago spoke up on behalf of West Pullman Elementary School at a hearing on the Far South Side late last week.
Then a local pastor spoke about the changing culture and the positive effect of a new principal at Whistler Elementary, which like West Pullman is on the preliminary list CPS released last week of 129 schools that could be closed. Another pastor talked about the problems with gangs near Lawrence Elementary, and CPS officials wrote some more notes.
School communities across the city are pulling out all the stops to make their case as the district prepares to make a final decision, due by the end of March, on what schools will be shuttered. Parents, teachers and community leaders are bringing healthy amounts of data and emotion to the meetings in their effort to convince district officials which schools should stay open.
The meetings will continue over the next several weeks. The district says it needs to close an as yet unknown number of under-enrolled schools to help address a projected deficit of $1 billion in the coming year.
District chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett has set specific criteria for the closings, and schools that don't want to be on the final list will have to show how they plan to build enrollment or improve academics. Security concerns will also play a role in deciding what schools to close.
Among the schools on the preliminary list were six that are part of the politically connected Academy for Urban School Leadership, which takes over schools known as turnarounds that are deemed in need of academic recovery.
CPS has invested nearly $20 million in capital improvements at the six AUSL Schools. AUSL, which runs 25 schools throughout the district, replaces teachers and administrators at its schools with AUSL-trained staff.
AUSL parents have appeared at meetings to speak about changes at schools being considered for closing.
"We know this has to run the course through the community meetings," said Shana Hayes, managing director of AUSL's external affairs department. "When CPS comes out with the new list, we hope our six schools will come off the list. We see significant positive changes in enrollment."
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the school closing process is "far from complete."
"We expect to get significantly more feedback from the community that will continue to guide this process and remove other schools from consideration," Carroll said.
The schools on the preliminary list are mostly on the West, South and Southwest sides. In all, more than 43,000 students attend the 129 schools still under consideration.
For many parents and educators, the meetings have provided an opportunity to vent their frustration and anger with the district. They've complained about being denied resources, increasing class sizes and the growth of privately run but publicly funded charters schools.
"You've taken our students away from us — that's why (the school is) under-enrolled," said Tonya Saunders-Wolffe, a counselor at the pre-kindergarten to third grade Owens Elementary in Roseland, referring to the growth of charter schools.
Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, said the meetings have allowed parents to come out and voice what's happening in their schools and what they need to get better. Woestehoff said she thinks the number of schools on the preliminary list will be far lower when the final list is released.
"Given the powerful push-back from schools and communities that has already happened, (the district) ought to be concerned about an exponential increase in the level of anger that is sure to explode if they announce the closure of anything like 100," she said.
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