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Plan to close 54 public schools rocks Chicago community

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March 21, 2013: Parents protest outside the home of Chicago's Board of Education President David Vitales house in Chicago. (AP)

Tens of thousands of Chicago students, parents and teachers learned Thursday their schools were on a long-feared list of 54 the city plans to close in an effort to stabilize an educational system facing a huge budget shortfall.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the closures are necessary because too many Chicago Public School buildings are half-empty, with 403,000 students in a system that has seats for more than 500,000. But opponents say the closures will further erode troubled neighborhoods and endanger students who may have to cross gang boundaries to attend school. The schools slated for closure are all elementary schools and are overwhelmingly black and in low-income neighborhoods.

CPS officials say money being spent to keep underutilized schools open could be better used to educate students elsewhere as the district deals with a $1 billion budget deficit. About 30,000 students will be affected by the plan, with about half that number moving into new schools.

"Every child in every neighborhood in Chicago deserves access to a high quality education that prepares them to succeed in life, but for too long children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed because they are in underutilized, under-resourced schools," said district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. "As a former teacher and a principal, I've lived through school closings and I know that this will not be easy, but I also know that in the end this will benefit our children."

As word of the closures trickled out, parents and teachers reacted with anger and shock, some even crying. Sandra Leon said she got a tearful call from her grandchildren's kindergarten teacher saying the school was on the list to be closed. Her two grown children also attended the school, and Leon wiped her eyes as she waited outside for her grandchildren.

"It's been so good for our kids," Leon said. "This school is everything."

Chicago officials have moved to close schools in the past, but never anywhere near the number designated at one time by the Emanuel administration. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration spread school closings over a number of years. CPS, the nation's third-largest school district, now has 681 schools.

Chicago is among several major U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit to use mass school closures to reduce costs and offset declining enrollment. Detroit has closed more than 130 schools since 2005, including more than 40 in 2010 alone.

The issue has again pitted Emanuel against the Chicago Teachers Union, whose 26,000 members went on strike early in the school year, idling students for seven days. It has also put Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett at odds with parents, civic leaders and lawmakers, who have blasted the pair during highly charged community meetings throughout the city and at a legislative hearing earlier this week.

Union President Karen Lewis criticized Emanuel, who is out of town with his family, for being on vacation on the day of the announcement. She called the closings "an abomination."

"This is cowardly and it is the ultimate bullying job," Lewis said. "Our mayor should be ashamed of himself."

The vast majority of the 54 schools are in overwhelmingly black neighborhoods that have lost residents in recent years. Chicago's black population dropped 17 percent in the last census as African-Americans moved out to the suburbs and elsewhere. The other few schools are majority Hispanic or mixed black and Hispanic. Overall, 91 percent of Chicago public school students are minorities.

Many of the schools identified for closure are in high-crime areas where gang violence contributed to a marked increase in Chicago's homicide rate last year. The district plans to have community groups help students get to their new locations safely.

Among the critics is Eular Hatchett, who lives in the violence-plagued neighborhood of North Lawndale and walks her 13-year-old nephew DaVontay Horace to school.

"Our parents know about this area," she said. "They don't know about those other areas. If they send him way north or way south, I'm not going to do that. It's too dangerous."

Because some schools have more than one building, a total of 61 structures will be closed. In addition to the closures, students at 11 other schools will be "co-located" with existing schools. Six schools have been targeted for academic interventions known as "turnaround."

CPS says the plan will save the district $560 million over 10 years in capital costs and an additional $43 million per year in operating costs.

The district plans to invest $233 million into what it calls the "welcoming" schools, or the buildings that students in closed schools will be moving to. Those funds will be used for air conditioning, upgraded technology and security and to ensure every school has a library.

District officials said they couldn't calculate how many teachers will be laid off as a result of the cuts because school leaders will make decisions about their own budgets.

Many teachers and parents expressed anger and frustration at how the news of the closures trickled out, leaving some to agonize over rumor and conjecture.

"In a word, the approach was brutal. It's certainly not deserved by these parents and these kids," said Mary Visconti, the director of the Better Boys Foundation, a youth organization in the Lawndale neighborhood.

At Lafayette Elementary, where 95 percent of its 483 students come from low-income families, teacher Rosemary Maurello said the principal read teachers a letter from the district Thursday morning saying the school is among those it plans to close. The letter said a final decision would be made in May after more community meetings are held and budget plans are reviewed.

But Maurello said letters and information packets were already being sent to parents and the district's message to teachers included a mention of specific plans to move the Lafayette students to another school about 10 blocks away.

"It sounds like a done deal to me," Maurello said.

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