Education group seizes opportunity in CPS closings

April 17, 2013

In the parking lot of the Burger King on 69th and Halsted, a small group of parents and activists is getting a primer on school closings on a recent Saturday morning.

This isn’t a random crowd. They’re all with a local chapter of the national education reform group Stand For Children. It’s the well-funded, pro-charter organization that helped push through Illinois legislation for a longer school day and teacher evaluations.

For the past few weeks, they’ve been canvassing Chicago neighborhoods most affected by schools closings.

Trainers explain packets the volunteers will be handing out in Englewood. They include a list of open enrollment school options and a CPS magnet school application. There’s also Stand for Children literature.

Chicago Public Schools’ intention to close 53 elementary schools has rattled communities. Powerful groups like the local teachers union and vocal parents lambaste the closure plan. But there are others who see restructuring as an opportunity.

Juan Jose Gonzalez is Stand for Children’s Chicago director. He says in the past few weeks, canvassers have knocked on more than 11,000 doors.

“I’ve actually been very surprised at the feedback,”  Gonzalez said. “We know sometimes those that scream the loudest get the most attention. But what we’ve been finding on the door is a lot of people either a. know about the school action or have come to grips with it. Some people when they find out about the new opportunities coming to them at the new school whether it be a new pre-K program, or air-conditioning or some of the capital improvements, they seem to get excited about that transition.”

It sounds a lot like Stand for Children’s own stance: Gonzalez says school closures are destabilizing, but that Stand for Children isn’t fighting them.

“There’s really nothing else we can do about it. We’re trying to be proactive and getting people to the right better quality schools,” Gonzalez said.

Mays and Banneker are two Englewood elementary schools impacted. Both have student populations that are mostly black and low income. CPS ranks both in the lowest level of academic performance. Banneker is slated to close; Mays will take over and move to Banneker’s building.

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Stand for Children volunteer Ophelia Svitak knocks on doors and reads from a script. Her job is to explain the Mays and Banneker school closures and changes. It’s a windy day. On some blocks there are more abandoned and boarded-up homes than occupied households.

The few times people do answer their doors, Svitak finds they don’t have children at either Mays or Banneker. But Stand for Children volunteers use the opportunity to ask people to sign a postcard petition, which asks if they want quality schools for all children in Chicago. Those people are now added to the group’s mailing list and swell their ranks on paper.

Finally, one Banneker parent answers. Kenitha Currie also has preschool-aged children. When Mays becomes Banneker, there will be a new pre-K program. Currie isn’t sure if she’ll keep her older kids there but she likes the change for her younger children.

“It’s some schools out here for preschool that go all day. That’s something that I do want because half a day for preschoolers ain’t gonna get it,” Currie said.

Then Svitak has her sign a Stand for Children petition.

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A couple of days later, I stopped by Banneker Elementary to hear from other parents.

Danielle Williams is skeptical.  She said her first grader Terrence gets straight As at Banneker and he doesn’t want to change.

“I want to keep my teacher,” Terrence said.

His mother says the school knows some of the behavior problems Terrence has.

“And they know what’s going on with him and they’re okay with him. Mays come in, they should still keep Banneker teachers because they’re good teachers and the principal because they’re good people,” Williams said.

Right now that seems unlikely. Williams says she’ll  see how the summer transition goes. Then she’ll decide if her son will stay at Banneker-turned-Mays Elementary  come fall.


Natalie Moore is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @natalieymoore.