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School Concerns Flare, as 48 Chicago Campuses Close

CHICAGO — Every morning, single father Kelly Griggs wakes up at 6 a.m., coaxes his two young sons through the routine, and walks with them to Francis Parkman Elementary School. On Wednesday, they’ll make the walk for the last time. After the final day of classes, Parkman and 47 other public elementary schools in Chicago are set to close permanently, displacing nearly 13,000 students.

Griggs, who is 26 and works as a private security guard and youth mentor, lives in a brick bungalow in Englewood, a South Side neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates in Chicago. His back yard is shaded by a tall oak with twin trunks, but his boys, 6-year-old Jackel and 4-year-old Cedric, like to play in the front yard, talking with neighbors and running around with their cousins. The park across the street from their house is well maintained, and often empty.

Like many parents across Chicago, Griggs was shocked to find out that Parkman was shutting down and dismayed that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials wanted to send his kids to Jesse Sherwood Elementary.

Sherwood is less than a mile south of Parkman. The two schools are separated by Garfield Boulevard, a six-lane road that can be crossed only at a sprint or by waiting for a second light on the median. Garfield is also considered to be the turf boundary between two gangs, the Mickey Cobras and the Gangster Disciples. In the Parkman transition plan, CPS has pledged to staff the area with unarmed safety workers.

Although many current Parkman students will have to cross Garfield Boulevard next year, Cedric and Jackel won’t. Griggs already takes that walk with them every morning to get to Parkman. Sherwood is 500 feet from his house.

Parkman was a destination school for Griggs. He considered Sherwood, but picked Parkman for the teaching staff’s focus on socialization and parent engagement. The stately, solid-looking brick building, which he thinks should be “a landmark,” was built in 1911 and still has stone carved lintels marking the former boys’ entrance and girls’ entrance.

“I was enjoying Parkman and the way they handled interaction with the parents,” said Griggs. “This is a school that embodies what CPS is supposed to be. They had small classes, but those small classes were helping children learn.”

Griggs’ list of reasons for choosing Parkman looks similar to CPS’ reasons for closing it. Facing deep budget deficits, the district has targeted older buildings that it says are more expensive to maintain. Schools too far below the CPS efficiency rate of 30 students per homeroom are designated “underutilized.” And for teachers at the closing schools, focusing on intangibles instead of test scores may have cost them their job. At least 530 were laid off on Friday, according to a union representative.

  • Chicago Public Schools parent Kelly Griggs talks about the neighborhood impact that the school closures, scheduled for Wednesday, will have in the city. Photo by Michael Shin for Equal Voice News

  • Parkman Elementary School is one of the 48 campuses in the Chicago Public Schools system that will shutter on Wednesday. It is one of the largest school closings of its kind in the country in recent years. Photo by Michael Shin for Equal Voice News

  • Chicago resident Kelly Griggs stands with his two sons outside his home in Englewood and talks about the neighborhood impact of the school closures in the city. Photo by Michael Shin for Equal Voice News

  • Anthony Overton Elementary School is part of one of the largest school closings of its kind, when Chicago Public Schools shutters it on Wednesday, largely because of a budget deficit. Parents and teachers remain upset with overall closure decision. Photo by Michael Shin for Equal Voice News

  • Earlier in June, numerous signs, such as “Save Our School,” could be seen in the windows of Anthony Overton Elementary School. On Wednesday, 48 public schools in Chicago will close, making it one of the largest of its kind in the country in recent years. Photo by Michael Shin for Equal Voice News

  • Jaton Gould, 30, stands outside of Anthony Overton Elementary School, which will close on Wednesday. Her four children attend the school and she has been a campus volunteer. Photo by Michael Shin for Equal Voice News

  • Days before Anthony Overton Elementary School in Chicago will close, parent Donella Foster and her son walk near the campus. Her son is a student. Parents have voiced concern that the Chicago school closures will have a deep impact in low income neighborhoods. Photo by Michael Shin for Equal Voice News

  • Irene Robinson wraps her arm around her grandchild, who attends Anthony Overton Elementary School in Chicago. The school is one of 48 that will shutter on Wednesday because of a budget deficit. Many parents have voiced concerns about the closures. Photo by Michael Shin for Equal Voice News

  • Chicago Public Schools parent Kelly Griggs has a sign in the window of his house – in support of schools. On Wednesday, one of the largest school closings in recent history will occur in Chicago when 48 campuses will shutter. Photo by Michael Shin for Equal Voice News

  • Parent Kelly Griggs stands in front of Sherwood Elementary School, which will stay open next year and is 500 feet from his house. But he chose to enroll his kids in Parkman Elementary because he liked the focus on socialization and parent engagement. Parkman closes on Wednesday. Photo by Michael Shin for Equal Voice News

Parents, such as Griggs, who did their research and chose elementary schools outside of their home district, feel baffled that their schools are the ones being closed. Many see injustice in the geography of the closures, which overwhelmingly affect low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods.

“You say you’re closing schools that are underutilized, but you’re only closing schools on the south and west sides of town,” said Griggs. On the city’s North Side, only two schools are closing, both in the diverse Uptown neighborhood. “It makes it seem like you’re setting different rules for our education. Why can’t our children have small class sizes?”

CPS Deficit of $1 Billion

For Chicago’s public school families, the confusion at the end of the school year echoes the tumult at its beginning. In September, the Chicago Teachers Union strike – over stalled contract negotiations – drew national attention. For a week and a half, teachers in apple-red CTU shirts gathered at rallies across the city, and working parents scrambled to arrange alternative care for their children.

The justification given for hard-line negotiations was the same as for the elementary school closures: a projected $1 billion CPS budget deficit for next fiscal year.

Chicago is not alone in closing schools to save money and narrow budget gaps. This month, Philadelphia will see the shuttering of 23 public schools, which will affect about 14,000 students, according to the National Education Association. Philadelphia school officials are facing a budget deficit of more than $1.3 billion over the next five years.

In Flint, Mich. in May, three elementary schools were placed on the closure list in the coming years to address a $15.6 million budget hole. Facing a $30 million deficit, school officials in Titusville, Fla. voted in February to close the doors of three schools this year. In 2012, in Washington, D.C., public school officials announced the closing of 20 campuses that were scheduled to take place this year.

In 2014, two public schools in Newark, New Jersey are slated to close and officials have talked about a $56 million shortage. Last year, six Newark campuses closed their doors.

Schools have been closing in Chicago, a few at a time, for a decade. In the past, they were often shut down for poor test scores and later reopened, with new staff, as “turnaround schools.”

This year, pursuing closures as a cost-cutting measure, CPS has discarded standardized test scores in favor of space utilization metrics. An elementary school with an average of fewer than 24 students per homeroom was a potential target for closure.

Nearly half of the 513 elementary schools in the system were rated underutilized this year, many but not all located in minority communities. “According to U.S. Census data, there are 181,000 fewer African Americans in Chicago today than last decade,” the CPS Office of Communications wrote in a March news release, which attributed the closures to the population decline.

That office did not respond to repeated phone calls for comment.

“It’s so insulting”

Frances Newman, 51, drives her granddaughter, 5-year-old Layla, and daughter, 13-year-old Amira, 10 miles each day to Williams Multiplex Elementary. Although the school is closing, the building, situated behind the Dearborn Homes housing project in the Douglas neighborhood, will reopen in the fall as the new home of John B. Drake Elementary School.

One morning last week, Newman stopped at Williams to print out a letter to her alderman, protesting Williams’ closing. The second graders were just coming back in from recess, filling the bright, clean hallway.

Newman pointed out a colorful kindergarten art project on the wall above the lockers, showing the mice from “Who Moved My Cheese?” The book, a business parable about organizational change, describes how the mice adapt when their usual cheese supply disappears. “It’s darkly appropriate,” she said.

Newman chose Williams because of its small size, small classes, and enrichment programs. Students study Mandarin, and the music room is well stocked with guitars, violins and other instruments. Teachers are uncertain if either program will continue at Drake.

“The students here are good. There are a lot of misperceptions because the school is behind Dearborn Homes,” said Principal Lashonn Graham. “A lot of parents don’t have choices, and I feel the hurt and pain, the emotions they’re going through.”

Williams has a confusing history – shut down in 2003 as a turnaround school, the building has since hosted a revolving door of CPS charter-school experiments.

“For schools in these communities that have done everything the district has told them to, and these schools are still on probation, who should be accountable?” asked Jitu Brown, an education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. “The final result is that the school is destabilized, the resources are destabilized,” he added.

“You can understand a budget crisis, but it’s the manner it’s being done,” said Newman. “It’s so insulting, doing whatever you decide with no concern for how it impacts the population of these communities.”

Graham, the principal, found out that Williams was closing on the news. The school’s special education teacher, Barbara Young, came back from spring break to find her classroom furniture coded with inventory stickers, weeks before the hearing process began. The closure seemed a foregone conclusion.

In fact, Williams is among 10 schools that are shutting down even after independent hearing officers found the closures out of compliance with state law or district guidelines.

Newman is contemplating homeschooling her daughters next year, dropping out of the system as a matter of principle. Teachers at Williams, and even the principal, expect to be out of a job next year. A 23-year CPS veteran who started as a teacher’s assistant, Graham said the one job offer she’d turn down is a position in Central Office.

“I’d rather go back to the classroom,” she said. “My heart is with the students.”

View Larger Map
The shaded areas on the map correspond to the percentage of households living below the poverty line in each of Chicago’s 77 community areas between 2006 and 2010, according to the City of Chicago’s Data Portal. Community areas marked in red indicate areas where more than 20% of households living in poverty


What Every Child Deserves

When school lets out for the day at Anthony Overton Elementary, the children pour out onto the sidewalk in pairs and groups, holding hands and wearing yellow polo shirts.

Englewood resident Jaton Gould, 30, brings her four children to Overton, which, like Williams Multiplex, is in the Douglas neighborhood. A former cheerleading coach who is heavily involved at the school as a volunteer, she’s usually outside talking to parents when school lets out, mobilizing them for action. Talk circulates of a parent-led student boycott in the fall.

“I already have a family structure at this school,” said Gould. “It’s like they’re tearing the family structure down.”

The fight to keep Overton open has been especially bitter. The school is slated to consolidate into Irvin C. Mollison Elementary, which like Overton is rated in the lowest academic performance category and is on probation.

In May, the independent hearing officer for Overton issued a report blasting the CPS contention that Overton students would be attending a higher-performing school. “This is tantamount, using a food metaphor, to the promise of an omelet with a crisp waffle,” the retired federal judge wrote. “Then what is delivered are broken eggs whose contents are oozing out and a burnt pancake.”

In a rebuttal, the CPS Law Office wrote that the retired judge had “substituted his judgment for the CEO’s” in applying a subjective definition to “higher-performing.”

By far, the biggest parent concern has been student safety at Mollison. The receiving school is near reported Black Disciple territory, and several Overton parents repeated a disturbing story.

On a sixth grade safety trip to Mollison in May, says an Overton Local School Council parent representative, Mollison students told the visiting students that they’d have to join a gang “or get dealt with.” Another parent said, “The boys at Mollison said, ‘If you ain’t BD, you’ll get beat up.’”

Gould and other parents say they’re refusing to enroll their children in Mollison. Many hold out hope that, somehow, Overton will reopen in the fall.

“They’re trying to cram 30 to 35 kids in one classroom,” says Gould. “The more children they add to these neighborhood schools, the worse their scores go. You’re robbing these kids of an education. You’re piling these children on one another like slaves.”

In a video posted online in March, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett defended the closures. “It is incredibly painful to walk in these schools and look at our children who are not getting what they need,” she said, seated behind a desk. “With our consolidations, we’re able to guarantee that our children will get what they need, and what they deserve.”


Keith Griffith is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His work has appeared in Grid Magazine, Chicago Reader and other publications.

2013 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper


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