Board of Education gets an earful on closings

  • By Paul D. Bowker
  • Education reporter
  • February 28, 2008 @ 8:07 AM

On a cold, winter morning in downtown Chicago yesterday, parents of Edison Regional Gifted Center students made sure their voices were heard.

At 9 a.m., hours before the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education chose to move their school, more than 20 parents formed a picket line outside the CPS Central Office's front door, chanting, "1, 2, 3, 4, no, we won't relocate."

The noise echoed down South Clark Street and beyond.

"It's not just us. They're creating an ocean of discontent out here," says Harlan Wallach, parent of two Edison students, who took the time to picket just six hours before he left on a business trip to China. "It's time for everybody to come together."

The picketing seemed to set the tone for a day on which the board would host an impromptu three-hour town meeting on Chicago's schools. Ultimately, the board okayed the largest turnaround plan in CPS history, replacing staffs at eight schools, closing four elementary schools, moving two schools and consolidating or phasing out four others.

The public turnout was so large that the Board chambers were not big enough to handle the numbers so an overflow room was used.

Children as young as pre-kindergarten appeared with yellow tape over their forehead or mouth, while their mothers grabbed their hands. On the yellow tape was one word: "Excluded."

Orr High school students shouted from the back of the room and wore stickers that stated: My school, my 'hood, my voice."

One person was escorted out of the chambers and many others had the microphone turned off because they went beyond their allotted two minutes -- not that the absence of a mic stopped them from shouting emotionally. Many yelled; some cried.

Rufus Williams, CPS president, and Arne Duncan, CPS chief, spent almost as much time fighting off verbal attacks as they did listening to speakers.

"This is sneaky and suspicious, just like CPS," says Felipa Mena, a parent opposing the closing of Andersen Elementary.

"We are against the school closings, the turnarounds, whatever you want to call it," says Wanda Hopkins, another parent. "You move our children from one school to the next school. I say to you, I am ashamed. … I don't know how you sleep at night."

"If you're about education, if you're about the children, then you need to stop this crap," says Larry McDonald, president of a local school council. "Our students don't want this, they don't need it."

People from all walks of life showed up in the CPS chambers -- parents, local school council members, clergymen, and students. The turnaround projects were slapped around from one side of the room to the other -- despite documented state scores that have all four affected high schools (three on the Orr campus and Harper High School) failing No Child Left Behind standards. Only 5 percent of Harper High's students, for example, met the standards in 2007.

But firing all of a school's teachers and replacing them with new teachers wasn't greeted warmly.

"Who's going to come to a school with new teachers there? Who's gonna go?" asked Duane Kidd of Englewood.

"There's no Kryptonite in Englewood. There's nothing super about coming to Englewood. We're not going to stand for it, we're not going to take it."

Others were concerned about safety.

"We're talking about casualties, we're talking about children left unsafe, and they don't deserve that," says Myrtis Hyman, who opposes the closing of Johns Middle Academy, 6936 S. Hermitage. "We need Johns to stay open."

And at the end of the nine-hour day, beginning at 8 a.m. with members of the public signing up to speak in the CPS lobby, the Edison parents rose from their seats in the chambers, standing silently as a roll call of Williams and four board members revealed unanimous approval of the CPS consolidations, school closings and turnaround projects.

The fight to keep their gifted program at one building at 6220 N. Olcott Ave. was over. They will be a new tenant in a building at 4929 N. Sawyer Ave. that is already occupied by the Albany Park Multicultural Academy.

"We lost our school," says Robin Rumsey, local school council president. "Because we care about working with the kids, we'll do the right thing."

Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.