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Englewood Gresham school closing hearing

The sixth Walton Family Foundation-sponsored Chicago Public Schools (CPS) school closing hearing -- due to supposed "underutilization" -- took place for the Englewood-Gresham Network on the afternoon of Saturday, February 2, 2013 at Kennedy King College located at 6301 S. Halsted. During the hearing, it was pointed out by one audience member that the location was better known locally as 740 63rd Street rather than "Halsted." Coupled with the fact that this hearing was scheduled after the first day of the month she questioned CPS’s commitment to really seek the community’s input. (The speaker said she was referring especially to older people but also others getting their Social Security checks and then needing to take care of lots of business on the first days of the month.)

One reason the address issue might have been brought up is because a Department of Children and Family Services (DSFS) building is also associated with the address of 63rd & Halsted; it's located at 6201 S. Emerald, but the bold lettering of the DCFS building is what is viewed upon arrival to the shared parking lot on 63rd and Halsted. On this single-digit Saturday afternoon (the hearing was from 11:00AM -1:00PM but extended until 1:25 in the auditorium), there was less than an inch of snow on the ground, but it was not shoveled anywhere near the parking lot. To enter the building from the parking lot, with wrought iron gates on the Halsted side closed near the building and extended to the parking lot entrance, people were basically steered to walk almost a block around the building from the Union Street side to the front entrance off the center of 63rd Street. A readily available back door instead had a homemade sign informing cold, hopeful attendees that the entrance was on 63rd Street. When I inquired within about opening the back entrance for the hearing, I was told that people would have to go through the kitchen area and that wasn't wanted.

It was standing room-only in the auditorium (capacity 268). Two tables were on opposite ends of the stage. On the left of the audience, with a laptop, was Andrea Hall, Senior FACE (Family and Community Engagement) Manager; and on the far right, in front of the microphone, were Englewood-Gresham Network Chief Adrian Willis and Deputy Chief Donel Underdue. Mr. Underdue joined CPS in September, coming from the Atlanta Public Schools where in July of 2011 he was promoted from a principal to an area superintendent position. He was here now for the CPS Breakout Sessions, in which the audience was informed that school communities of the Englewood-Gresham Network would be given presentations of "important data" regarding their schools.

Public participation turned out to be organized as follows: Schools were called to speak, in ABC order, with their chosen representatives. This was followed by speakers from the community; and finally CPS would work like h*** to arrange it so that the organizer from CTU would not be allowed to speak -- even at the end. As experienced observers now know from these events, CPS is trying to prevent the facts from coming out, and to prevent the massive opposition to the closing of schools form coming to public attention through the media.

Near the start, "Chief Family and Community Engagement Officer" (salary, $144,000 per year) Phillip Hampton said that he would not waste time introducing all the CPS personnel present, he would just ask them to raise their hands. He said this was an indication of how important it was for the public to inform CPS in its decision-making. The he said that there would be 45 minutes for public participation, 2-minutes for each speaker, and 45 minutes for the separate Breakout Sessions. He used the word “granular” a lot. Then someone else took over as the moderator of the mic.

But let’s start at the dead end of the hearing, with the words CPS did not allow the vast majority of the audience to hear from Matthew Luskin, CTU Organizer.

The audience of over 300 had dwindled down to 50-75 due to the Breakout Sessions for “more granular conversations” and “more granular discussions” (that “could not take place” in the auditorium setting, according to the CPS people trying to dominate the show). The breakout sessions began before CPS got even halfway through the ABC list of 49 schools, with 42 listed as “underutilized” in the Network. (Thusly the people from the schools who went to the Breakout Sessions could not hear the rest of the speakers in the auditorium.)

At the dead end of the meeting, past the official ending time by 20 minutes, the moderator had been allowing others from the audience to go up to the mic as everyone started officially exiting, but he abruptly stopped the meeting when Mr. Luskin loudly asked when he would be allowed to speak, having signed up 40-minutes before the meeting to speak. Matt Luskin went up to the mic and spoke as loudly and quickly as he could before they cut him off completely. Here’s what he was able to say to an at-first skeptical, remaining audience that ended up cheering him on:

Underutilization sounds reasonable, but there is a double standard - the classrooms in Englewood with 25 students were considered underutilized for what the Lab Schools attended by the mayor’s children would call the same classrooms overcrowded. CPS claims of deficits for 6 of the last 8 years have ended up with documentation of surpluses, and such is the exact case again now (with the CAFR, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report); CPS has another surplus instead of a billion dollar deficit as claimed. CPS was claiming that it was closing “underutilized” schools to save money, when in fact the money calculated to be saved by closing 100 schools amounted to 1% of the budget or 5% of the budget shortfall they are claiming already for next year. He asked: why were black educators and students being the almost exclusive population in CPS affected by these issues? Was the Board of Education, with Board member Penny Pritzker, she of the Hyatt Hotels (as an example of such business interests) receiving TIF (tax increment financing) funds, advocating for the schools to receive those same TIF funds? CPS could keep 100 schools open with such funds. The mic was cut off at this point, and the meeting ended.

Mr. Luskin was swarmed with people seeking copies of the CTU flyers.

The following schools (some not in this exact ABC order) had speakers: Altgeld; Barton; Bass; Bontemps; Cuffe; Davis, M.; Goodlow; Gresham; Henderson; Hinton; Kershaw; Langford; Morgan; Nicholson; Oglesby; Perspectives Charter; Ryder; Shabazz Charter- Sizemore; Sherwood; TEAM Englewood H.S.; Wentworth; and Woods.

No one at the hearing spoke in favor of closing schools, not even the one parent who said she was advocating for a turnaround who, in fact, seemed to change to asking for funding after listening to the other speakers.

In fact, many if not each individual school’s speakers made a point, while primarily defending their own school, of standing against the closing of any school, standing together in support of all the schools present.

A universal theme was the safety of the children, which would only be worsened by any school closings. CPS was focused on "saving money instead of lives," many said. Banks made money; schools were supposed to educate. Children were not the products of stores to be closed down. The local neighborhood schools were safe havens. There was concern expressed for the general safety of the adults as well as the children concerning gangs in the Englewood-Gresham Network.

CPS said it was not closing the high schools for this reason, but one parent from Gresham asked how gangs were going to tell the difference between tall 6th, 7th, and 8th graders from high school students? A repeated plea was for CPS to fund the local, public, neighborhood schools and educate the students so they wouldn’t become gangbangers. Rhonda Williams, a parent from Ryder, said that CPS might be taking two financial steps forward, but it was two education steps back.

Another repeated theme regarded the irony that consolidation would create overcrowded classrooms instead of lowering class size which was a proven way to improve education. Many schools said that they went from a Level 3 to a Level 2 rating (read: latest CPS jargon for the system’s concocted school rankings) due to what CPS was now calling “underutilization,” that is, NOT overcrowded classrooms.

Speakers from many if not each school demanded to be given the resources of other schools in CPS before being labeled as failing in any way. The questions were asked: How many schools are being closed on the northside? and why was this always happening to minority schools? Englewood-Gresham schools needed the supports of wrap-around services more than other areas. It was about poverty and violence. The schools’ communities had a lot of needs, but the number one need was for the schools to stay open. If attendance was any issue now, how could that possibly be improved by having the students travel even farther? Speaker after speaker said that the “failure” was with downtown CPS administrators, not the schools. We hear “this isn’t working and that isn’t working, but what are YOU doing, CPS?”

Underutilization data for Henderson, for one of many examples, did not consider that they had various labs and other programs in those classrooms; more of this type of use for “extra” classrooms was needed, not less. It was pointed out that CPS should not be allowed to close any schools until it could be said that CPS gave each school all the resources it needed to work to succeed in the first place.

One speaker told of a second grade classroom with 38 students, as CPS held the school accountable for test scores. Ryder school teachers and staff, as well as others, questioned what would happen to their students needing special education classrooms and services, especially for autism; many students do not respond well to drastic changes, but for students in special education it would be much worse. These students and their parents would be here protesting if they could. One parent, Maria Johnson from Wentworth, was in tears thinking of her shy, second grade son needing to start all over in another school setting.

One grandmother from Miles Davis spoke of closed schools as part of the modern day slavery of the public schools’ pipeline to prisons (where rights were taken away). The Englewood-Gresham area has been beaten up for years, and they were here now fighting for their lives. A Reverend Harper, who said he was a liaison and stakeholder in the community, said that when the word “parent” was used in these conversations it really meant “black woman.” (Not all audience members were in agreement with this.) He then went on to ask that CPS ask what was the social impact on her? Jonale Harper, a teacher from Woods, said that after studying Civil Rights one of her special education 5th-8th graders commented that education in Chicago was the modern BROWN v. BOARD of EDUCATION. There was not one voice in favor of opening more charters; in contrast, voices heard today were overwhelmingly against opening up any more charter schools, and it was pointed out that special education students were kicked out of the charters. Even the charter schools were complaining about CPS. Perspectives said they encouraged their parents to stand up outside of their cars so their kids could see them and go straight into the cars after school let out, but this wasn’t happening; and with CPS not assisting them, there were lots of gang fights. Shabazz Charter-Sizemore said that a building move change ordered by CPS resulted in them dropping from a Level 2 to a Level 3, for which they apologized, but the move also caused them lose half of their student population. There were questions of where gambling revenues (lotteries and boats) were going and how much of that was not going to the schools. Elected officials present were: 20th Ward Alderman Willie Cochran; 15th Ward Alderwoman Toni Foulkes; and 17th Ward Alderwoman Latasha Thomas, who it was announced had the “special distinction” of being the Education Committee Chair of the Chicago City Council. Not elected after running against Ms. Thomas was speaker David Moore (text ahead).

Ronald Jackson, from the Southside NAACP, informed the audience that CPS personnel were forced to be here by the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force; Springfield told CPS “no more playing with these parents” like the last time with paid protestors. David Moore, from Citizens for Moore, said that though this was all required by law, no one was going to look at it. He mentioned pipelines to prisons. The solution was elections – “If you were the mayor, this wouldn’t happen.” Vote in 2015! Other speakers went to the mic as the audience began to exit. At this point, CTU Organizer Matthew Luskin maneuvered to be the last speaker (see above).



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