'If you have any questions call 311,' CPS representatives told the audience... CPS hearing for the Songhai Elementary School closing -- with the students moved into (the previous closed and reconstituted) Curtis Elementary School -- highlighted by refusal of highly paid CPS executives to answer any

The first of the three “hearings” legally required per each Chicago Public School (CPS) action against elementary school communities across the city began today, April 6, 2013. The 2-lined heading on the handout for the closing of Songhai Learning Institute was entitled, “Providing A Better Education For All Students/ Songhai Elementary and Curtis Elementary.” This is followed by a paragraph on the commitment of CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a legal resident of the state of Ohio (see related Substance articles on this April webpage), to the education of the children of Chicago.

Songhai Elementary School on S. Perry St. will be close if Rahm Emanuel gets his way, and the children (along with some staff) will all be packed into Curtis Elementary School, several blocks away across what amounts to almost an urban wasteland. Two years ago, Curtis was closed and subjected to "turnaround". At the April 6 hearing on the closing, CPS bureaucrats refused to answer questions, telling parents, teachers, students, and reporters fo "Call 311." Substance photo by Susan Zupan. The hearing took place at 10:00 AM in the auditorium of Harlan High School located at 9652 S. Michigan Avenue. Songhai is located at 11725 S. Perry. Curtis is located at 32 E. 115th Street. The audience numbered between 50-60 people. Facilitator #1, Annette Gurley, introduced herself as the Chief of Teaching and Learning. She spoke of this hearing as a continuation of a 4-month hearing process.

She introduced Facilitator #2, Dr. Markey Winston, as “the Chief of Students with Diverse Learning Needs.” The department is listed as “Diverse Learner & Support Services” according to a sheet I was given. She introduced Harrison Peters, stopping to ask him, “What’s your Network?” Then she informed the audience that he was from the Lake Calumet Network.

A CPS court reporter was keeping a record of the entire event.

The audience was introduced to the CPS employees available for sign language interpretation as well as Spanish, neither of which was requested during the hearing. Captain Daly, a representative from the Chicago Police Department (CPD) was seated at the table on the stage. Ms. Gurley was corrected by audience members when she mispronounced Songhai.

Ms. Burley was followed by Dr. Markay Winston who repeated much of what was just said, letting the audience know that those who signed up to speak would have two minutes. There were 25-30 speakers in all. However, before the hearing only 13 people signed-up to speak. Since speakers were limited to two minutes each, with the “timekeeper” standing about three feet slightly to the right of the speakers holding signs up for just about every 15 seconds of time passing by (rather a distraction), the speaker list was over fairly quickly.

Everyone was left sitting in silence, since no one from CPS would answer any questions, and no one who already spoke could be heard from again. No members of the Chicago Board of Education were present. Nor was Barbara Byrd Bennett, the Chief Executive Officer.

The audience was reminded, by the CPS representatives there, present, right in front of the audience, that if they had any questions they could call 311 or go to the website listed on the flyer ( I was stopped by CPS security from approaching the front table to ask questions because “they were only here to listen.”

Some of the homes on the route between Songhal and Curtis. Abandoned buildings and vacant land that had previous held abandoned buildings are features of the landscape the children will walk through to get to their new school, which Barbara Byrd Bennett insists will provide everything that the present school doesn't have. Additionally, students will supposedly get air conditioning, computers -- everything but a pony. Substance photo by Susan Zupan. In the awkward silence that followed, others decided to speak. However, instead of anyone from CPS bringing the sheets to the front of the auditorium (as had been done in previous years), those who now wished to speak (at 5- and 10-minute intervals between the continuing awkward pauses of official silence) were instructed to go back out into the hall to officially sign up, as the rest of those who remained waited the process out.

A procession of speakers thus continued to advocate for Songhai not to be closed down with the students being sent to Curtis.

Though there was at least one teacher present from Curtis School, there was not one official speaker from Curtis. This teacher and I spoke briefly of how these CPS actions would be straining both schools, not one. Present also was Jarvis Sanford, who identified himself as the Chief Officer of Elementary Schools for AUSL.; he was accompanied by an employee who did not identify herself except to say that she had only been on the job for 6 weeks. Curtis had been turned-around by AUSL in a previous CPS school action in 2010. When I was speaking to them, Chuck Swirsky, who had earlier told me he was from Intergovernmental Affairs but was here for CPS Communications, quickly swooped over to tell me that I needed to go through him to speak with anyone from CPS; he simply walked away when I told him that it was a public meeting, and I could speak with anyone I wanted.

The first speaker, Ruby Dowsey, identified herself as the Local School Council (LSC) chairperson from Songhai. She expressed concerns for the train tracks students would have to cross to go to Curtis, and pointed out that these were actually shown on the map given out by CPS in one of the handout pages. (On that map and via a drive around the area, it can be seen that these tracks more-or-less divide the two schools’ attendance boundaries.) She wanted to know exactly what was going to transfer with the students to Curtis – the teachers? the schools’ affiliation with the Chicago Bulls, etc.? She expressed concern for words she was hearing on the news to the effect that all of this was a “done deal,” words from Rahm Emanuel himself.

The next parent stopped for a moment to ask if the first would get a response? The response from Dr. Winston was: “No, we are here to listen.” The parent then went on to express concerns for her children going to Curtis when they were bonded with Songhai.

Beside the train tracks and a viaduct over them on one street, gangs were mentioned by many as a concern in this present CPS school action; one parent said that the tracks were the boundary line. Another parent expressed concern not only for her daughter but for herself, worried that if she had to walk past vacant houses with her daughter to take her to Curtis, what might happen to her by herself on the way home?

Chicago Teachers Union organizer, Kathy Murray, reported that her own radar went up when she heard of this proposed CPS change; she had worked as a teacher at Songhai, then Scanlon, 19 years ago, and the neighborhood had such issues back then. She spoke of an incident in 2002 in which at dismissal Songhai students had to run back into the building, and the building was put on lockdown until 5PM due to Curtis kids who came over to beat them up. She commented that the city couldn’t do anything about vacant houses, couldn’t close down crack houses, but they could close schools. (Interesting Note: speaking with Ms. Murray on the side, she said that Songhai, originally named Scanlon for the developer in Roseland who had the school built, is the only elementary school in the city that was originally built with an indoor pool, presently in the basement in an unusable state.)

Susan Garza, a CTU district supervisor for the southeast side, spoke also as a concerned citizen. She asked why there was $30 million for charter schools and $250 million of TIF dollars for wealthy businesses in Chicago but no money for neighborhood schools. This was all just a dog and pony show so CPS could say, “Well, we listened.” One Songhai student told the CPS reps that Curtis and Songhai had been “going to war since 2009.” She said that kids were going to end up killed and in the hospital. She said that she herself had anger issues, and she would be fighting every day to protect the younger members of her family if she had to. An audience member yelled out, “How can you do this to kids?!”

Many of the parents, teachers, students, PSRPs, the lead custodian, and the security guard of Songhai spoke told of many improvements made at Songhai in the past 5 years under the leadership of principal Sherry Pirtle. (Note: Composite ISAT meets/exceed data for each school is as follows for the last three years: Songhai 49.1% 55.3% 60.1%; Curtis 46.2% 60.6% 64.2%. 2012 attendance data is: Songhai 91.4%; Curtis 93.5%. For students there appears to be no great gap between the two schools data-wise regarding the “high-quality education that prepares them to succeed in college, career, and life” as the CPS handout states in that paragraph about the CEO’s concerns.) They asked why CPS would stop this progress from continuing. One teacher informed the CPS reps at the hearing that Songhai had PreK, as she pointed out that on the CPS handout it was listed as a bonus that Curtis had a PreK program.

Parent Ammie Nowlin pointed out the “love” she had for the empty seats that were reserved for elected officials. She spoke of the volunteer work of her late father in the Songhai community and at the school. She mentioned a 50% increase in students crossing busy intersections with this proposed change. She asked: if Mayor Rahm Emanuel cared about kids so much, why weren’t his own kids in a neighborhood school? As she left the microphone, she loudly suggested that CPS should have (toilet) tissue available to wipe up this “load of BS” they called “listening.” Parent Felicia Moore Cummings, Roseland resident for 42 years, asked if what CPS was doing was genocide. Another parent asked how CPS could make children fight to get an education. Songhai security guard, James Hawkins, reported that people were recruiting their kids right now for charter schools; he wanted it put on the record that they even passed him a flyer.

At one point, the LSC chairperson shouted out that these CPS “mother f*****s were sitting there laughing at us.” She said she was “ready to go!” as she was escorted out. Full disclosure: In the funeral and/or wake-like silence after the initially signed-up speakers finished, I spoke requesting that the CPS representatives here today please let the audience members know how long they had been with CPS and how long they had been residents in Chicago. I said that aside from being here as a reporter from Substance, I was a lifelong resident of Chicago, and a graduate of CPS as well as being a CPS teacher. No answer was given, so I said the answer would be found at (Partial info: Harrison Peters is not originally from Chicago and has for some time been applying for administrative positions outside of Chicago. Markay Winston is newly arrived in July 2012 from Cincinnati.)

Other CPS employees present who allowed me to see their identification badges (one employee from the Lake Calumet Network refused) and gave me the names of their departments included: Joseph Sobus and Thyatiria Towns, Family and Community Engagement; Lynetta Walden, Benefits Department; Gail Ratliff, Talent Office; Ronald Kubalanza, Office of Diverse Learner & Support Services; John Ambrose and Terri Kelly, Far South K-12 Network.

Near the end of the hearing’s slowly ticking-away time, two students, Isaiah Evans and Yohance Nowlin signed up to “say the Songhai Pledge.” Every morning at Songhai the students say the Pledge of Allegiance followed by the Songhai Pledge: “I promise to do my best, to respect myself, my teachers, and my classmates, to learn as much as I possibly can and to bring honor to the name of Songhai Learning Institute.”

The next hearings for the CPS action of Songhai closing into Curtis will be held on Friday, April 12 at 5PM again at Harlan H.S.; and at CPS headquarters located at 125 S. Clark Street on April 23 at 5PM.


April 7, 2013 at 9:10 AM

By: Michael Harrington

Excellent report

This is excellent reporting on another example of the CPS charade. Thanks for the great work.

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