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MEDIA WATCH: Tribune, others notice massive resistance to latest attack on city's real public schools

The Chicago Tribune sent several reporters across the city the day after CPS announced the Hit List of 2013.

TRIBUNE MARCH 23, 2013 Below here:

Chicago school closing plan ignites emotions... Anger, confusion for many parents — but reprieve offers a sigh of relief for others

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Kim Geiger and Dahleen Glanton, Chicago Tribune reporters

March 24, 2013

After months of anxiety for parents and teachers, the release of a list of 53 public schools Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration plans to close ignited a fresh round of questions and protest as communities struggle to deal with the largest schools shake-up in city history.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which went on strike for seven days in September, plans to rally at the Daley Center Wednesday and has been preparing parents and community groups for weeks for civil disobedience acts like sit-ins.

Opponents of the district's plan have hung "No School Closings" and "School Closings = One-Term Mayor" banners in the Loop. They have gathered outside schools slated to be closed to voice their displeasure with the district's decisions. While parents and students worry about moving to a new school in September, teachers and other workers at schools slated to be closed wonder if they'll be able to find another job.

More than 1,100 teachers work in the schools that could be closed. CPS says many will move to schools receiving displaced students. Under the union contract, veteran teachers with high performance ratings will get a job at a receiving school if there's a need. Principals and other school leaders would be retained through Oct. 31 to help with the transition, officials said.

The district needs to hold three meetings for each of the schools scheduled to close, two in each community and one at CPS headquarters. The school board is expected to vote on the plan in late May.

CPS officials say closing schools is necessary to address a projected $1 billion deficit. But the upfront costs, $233 million, mean the district will need to issue $155 million in bonds for capital improvements at schools taking in displaced students. But CPS expects to save $43 million annually in operating costs, starting next year and to save more than $560 million in capital costs over 10 years.

A big uncertainty is what will become of the 61 school buildings that will be closed. Many of those schools are in neighborhoods already filled with abandoned buildings.

Emily Dowdall, a senior researcher who has studied large-scale school closings for Pew Charitable Trusts, said school districts need to unload unused buildings quickly to make significant money.

"It can be difficult to find new uses for a large number of buildings, particularly older ones or those not in good condition, or those in neighborhoods that don't have a demand for real estate," Dowdall said. "What we found was that districts that move aggressively to sell or lease facilities soon after they're closed, they do better. The longer these buildings sit empty, the harder they will be to sell."

District officials have been making the case for school closings since October. Hearings overseen by a school closings commission and the district were attended by more than 20,000 people. In the past week, schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has done a blitz of TV interviews, mounting a charm offensive with promises of air conditioning, libraries, science labs and even iPads at schools taking in displaced students.

Terry Mazany, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust and a former interim schools chief, said the ongoing fight against the district's decision will make it harder to carry out the school closings plan.

"As difficult and disruptive as these large-scale school closings will be, I am equally concerned with the negative repercussions this uncompromising opposition will have on children and families," Mazany said.

But as parents, students and teachers learned the fate of their schools last week, there was mostly anger, sadness and fear about what's to come.

Bitter rivals

Laura Ward Elementary and Ryerson Elementary sit less than a half-mile apart, just north of Garfield Park, but the two schools are bitter rivals, teachers and parents said.

Now they are set to merge. The Ward building will close and students and faculty from Ward will move into the Ryerson building at 646 N. Lawndale Ave. The building will take the name of Ward, the better performing school, and Ryerson students will be welcomed back to their building by Ward faculty and staff.

Parents and teachers questioned the wisdom of the plan, which would require the students to sit side-by-side in a building that would be viewed as enemy territory by some and occupied territory by others.

"That school and this school, they've been fighting for years," said Anntoinette Ellis, 35, who has four children at Ward.

Katina Makris, 29, a Ryerson teacher, said the rivalry was the first thing her fourth-grade students mentioned when they heard about the plan.

"They said, 'Ward, they do not like us,'" Makris recalled. Older students were even more concerned, she said.

Since the districtwide school closing plan could send students into unfamiliar territory and, in some areas, force them to cross gang lines, CPS has pledged extra funding for the Safe Passage program that positions adults along routes that students take to and from school.

A letter sent home with Ward and Ryerson students last week said CPS planned to provide resources to help with the transition, such as "visits for families, coffee chats with the welcoming principal, picnics, field trips and parent meetings."

Ellis was skeptical.

"You call it Laura Ward, but you're going to have all these kids together and then all these problems," Ellis said. "I want to see how they're going to work that out, but I'm going to move my children. I don't know (where), but I'm not going to have them up in there."

Special needs

To parents of students with special needs, the decision to close Trumbull Elementary in the Andersonville neighborhood on the North Side is just the latest battle in their war with CPS.

On Thursday, parents paced the sidewalks outside the school, handing out fliers in English and Spanish urging neighborhood residents and other parents to join their fight to keep the school open.

"We need your help now more than ever, as we continue to fight for our school," the flier said. "There is strength in numbers and together we can make a difference."

Thirty-seven percent of Trumbull's roughly 400 students have special needs, and parents said teachers and staff have a long history of working with those children. Sending them to another school worries parents and staff.

"The loss of familiar surroundings is difficult for kids with special needs," said Jennifer Steiner, an occupational therapist at Trumbull. "It's hard for them to transition to the unknown. It sets them back when there are changes in routine and they have to adjust to entirely new faces and new staff."

Trumbull students will be going to one of three schools, Chappell, McCutcheon and McPherson, under the district's plan.

Ramiz Khaya, 47, said his 13-year-old daughter Crystal, a special needs student, has thrived at Trumbull. He said he plans to do all he can to make the voices of children such as her heard.

"When she comes here, the teachers hug her. It's like a second home," Khaya said. "She's gone from zero to a 10 in her attention span, her speech and everything. I'm going to raise my full force to see that this school stays open and that all of these beautiful faces don't have to go."

Education experts have been concerned about how school closings will affect the special education students. Rod Estvan of disability rights group Access Living said he was glad to see that a number of schools with high percentages of special education students called cluster sites did not close.

But in many cases where one school is closed and consolidated with a receiving school, the number of special education students would increase, meaning more students for one case manager, Estvan said. Among other things, that could drag down academic scores for the overall school, Estvan said.

CPS said special support will be available at receiving schools for students with disabilities, as well as those in the programs English Language Learners and Students in Temporary Living Situation. The students will also receive "one-on-one consultations" with officials from the closing and receiving schools before the next school year begins.

Some good news

While many were upset to find their school could close, the final cut meant good news to schools that had been on the preliminary list of 129 buildings the district considered closing.

The Logan Square community rallied around Brentano Elementary Math and Science Academy, which survived the cut.

"It's small relief amid a lot of pain and sadness for the city," said Seth Lavin, who helped organize the fight to save Brentano.

Organizers collected more than 1,000 signatures on petitions and solicited the help of elected officials. Lavin's wife, Kate Kindleberger, started a toddler play group at the school to attract young middle-class families that are new to the neighborhood.

Dozens of volunteers eventually pitched in, creating a Friends of Brentano group to develop ideas on how to increase enrollment and market the school.

The community argued that although the school wasn't filled to capacity, families moving to the area would need the school in a few years. Organizers brought about 400 parents to a school closing hearing.

State Sen. Iris Martinez, who sat on the commission that made recommendations to the district about school closings, signed a letter of support for the school, as did various aldermen.

"I feel like we helped change their mind," Lavin said. "Who knows where they started, where they changed their mind. I don't know. No one ever said, 'This is what made us not want to close the school."

'This makes no sense'

Von Humboldt Elementary and Duprey Elementary share a building in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Both are slated to close, with students moving to Diego Elementary, which will operate in its building and the building formerly occupied by von Humboldt and Duprey, under the district's plan.

"It's a rough situation that the kids have to change schools when they've come this far together," Tanika Manning, 37, said as she was picking up her daughters, a 13-year-old at Duprey and a 4-year-old at von Humboldt.

"My oldest girl has been here, she's in seventh grade now and she's about to lose her friends to go to another school."

Zeus Arreola, 28, who has children at both of the closing schools, worried about how his children would adjust to a new school, and whether they'd feel safe.

"This makes no sense," the Chicago native said. "This city is not what it used to be."

Staff reporters Lolly Bowean and Rachael Levy contributed.

nahmed@tribune.com

dglanton@tribune.com

kgeiger@tribune.com



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