Hearings begin, parents and teachers sound off on school closings plan

April 7, 2013

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
CPS officials look out at an empty auditorium as they wait for the clock to run out on a three-hour hearing. Community residents and parents boycotted the hearing. CPS says 20 people came.

Hearings began Saturday to give the public a chance to weigh in on Chicago Public Schools’ massive plan to close and consolidate schools, the largest ever tried in the nation. The district is required by law to hold more than 180 public hearings on its plan to close 54 schools, completely re-staff six, and consolidate others.

Attendance at the first day of meetings was sparse. Across 13 hearings, fewer than 400 people turned out. At one of the hearings, the district recorded just one person having attended. At hearings held before the final closing list came out, 400 people turned out to single meetings.

West Side activist Dwayne Truss says he helped organize a boycott of a hearing in the Austin community. The meeting was meant to gather feedback on a proposal that would consolidate three schools into one.

“You know, we participated in the two community hearings that they had held previously, and it seems like they were just doing it for a dog and pony show, just to get to a predetermined outcome.”

Truss pointed to comments in late March from Mayor Rahm Emanuel saying negotiations were over; what’s the point in holding a hearing, he wondered.

“No more discussions, negotiations. Shut up. We’re  gonna move forward with our transition plans.”

The school district staffed Saturday’s hearings with department heads who said little or nothing in response to speakers’ questions and comments. That frustrated speakers at times. The district says all feedback will make it to decision makers.

Even meetings with sparse crowds featured emotional testimony—about safety, disruption of communities, and the impact on students. One mother with a child in the autism program at Yale testified that it has not been easy to find a school for her son.

“Finally he got a school that make him happy. He talks about the school all the time. And now you finna take him once again and put him into another school. Ya’ll not thinking about the kids,” she said.

At a hearing for King Elementary in the Tri-Taylor neighborhood, Nancy Pina said she’s concerned about Latino kids getting the bilingual help they need if King closes; the receiving school, Jensen, is all African-American. A number of speakers said closing King would break up a school where black-Latino integration is working. Many said Latino families will simply not enroll at Jensen, which is further west. Pina, who went to King herself and whose family has lived in the Tri-Taylor area for decades, says she’ll feel forced to put her three kids in private school if King closes.

The district is required by law to hold three hearings for every school closing.

On Saturday, speakers arguing that Yale Elementary should not close included the head custodian. “And if you’ve ever been in Yale you’ll notice that  it’s one of the cleanest schools you’ve ever been in,” said Angela Abrons.

Abrons criticized the enticements the district is pushing at receiving schools. CPS has promised air conditioning, libraries, and more staff at receiving schools. “I notice you mentioned Harvard will have a Pre-K program for our students when they get there? We had a Pre-K program and it was closed.”

Abrons said recent building upgrades, including all new windows and automatic doors, are “wasted money” if Yale closes.

Speakers at the hearings also mulled why the district was really closing schools—many said they do not believe CPS when it says the goal is to get students into better schools.

“Every last school over in that area is slated for closing, so what are you trying to do? Is this a land grab?” asked Carol Johnson at the King closing hearing. Johnson identified herself as a “freelance organizer. “

One Yale teacher said at the microphone, “Deep down inside I believe this is a way for Rahm Emanuel to get back at the teachers—point blank, for the strike.”

CPS says it needs to spread scarce dollars across fewer schools. It says the schools slated for closure are underenrolled.