School Closings: A Community Reacts

January 13, 2009

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Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary was one of 25 schools targeted for closure. (WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
The past few days have been tough for Chicago parents, teachers and students who are learning that their schools will be closed down, phased out, or re-staffed. CPS will announce its official list of school closures in the coming days. But a tentative list of schools was leaked late last week. Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary was one of 25 schools named.

Map it: View locations of the schools targeted for closure or reconfiguration.
How the list was leaked

BOY: Is they closing down our school?

If you're wondering about the district's latest attempt to fix its struggling schools, you could ask the kids at Holmes.

GIRL: It's gonna be a 'turnaround school.'
GIRL2: But I was wondering, 'What IS a turnaround school.'
JORDAN: A turnaround school is when they fire all the staff, the janitors, the lunch ladies, the media teachers, the teachers, and the students.

The students won't be fired, but fourth-grader Jordan Overton is right about everyone else. When Jordan enters fifth grade in September, it's likely he won't know a single adult in the building.

Teacher Andrew Trujillo said he spent Monday like most other Holmes teachers—in shock. He said teachers and parents alike are worried about severing bonds with students who need more stability in their lives, not less.

TEACHER: Some of the kids have been with us two years…we get brothers and sisters. They know they're going to get us as a teacher and they're excited about it and we have a raport with the families. To find out that that's not enough to…it hurts. The bottom line is it just hurts a lot.

One parent described taking off work Monday morning when she heard that Holmes would be turned around. She said she cried on her way to the school and prayed it wasn't true that her children's teachers would be fired.

This is the district's sixth year shutting down or drastically reconfiguring schools it says aren't up to par. Holmes has shown some improvement over the past four years, but just over 40 percent of its students meet state standards in reading and math—that's about 25 points below the district average. Still, many parents and teachers said they see progress that doesn't show up on test scores. A new program has improved student behavior; kids seem to be reading earlier.

Trujillo teaches kindergarten in a community where kids arrive at school already behind their middle-class peers.

TRUJILLO: Small things, you know? You see a student that two weeks ago couldn't figure out that the word “cat” starts with C, and then two weeks later, they got it. And they're like, 'Cookie starts with C, Cake starts with C.'

As is the case at many struggling schools, Holmes has been through fix after fix. Thirty-one-year old Ashley Palmer attended Holmes and has two children at the school.

PALMER: Most of the teachers here just got here. That's the whole point of them hiring all these new teachers, to get the kids back on track. I don't believe they're giving them enough time to do this. I don't believe so.

In the past, CPS has hired an outside management firm to run its turn-around schools. Holmes is among a cluster of schools in and around Englewood targeted for turnaround. Another cluster lies further south, near Roseland. All the schools targeted on the tentative list for turnaround are predominantly black, and located in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Chicago's dramatic approach won praise from President-elect Barack Obama last month when he tapped schools chief Arne Duncan to be the nation's next Education Secretary.

But many believe it's too early to tell whether the cure is helping or hurting the ailment. Sherman Elementary was “turned around” in 2006. Its scores are roughly on par with other schools in the neighborhood, including Holmes.
Julie Woestehoff is director of the parent group PURE. That's the group that leaked the list of schools to be closed.

WOESTEHOFF: The problem is that these schools are not getting the resources they need, they're not getting the support they need, and then the system turns around and labels them as failures, ruins peoples lives, takes away people's livelihoods, and replaces the school with a school that's pretty similar and not much better—if at all better—than the one that was there before. We don't think it's worth the disruption and the damage that it's causing.

A Chicago Public Schools spokesman said the district won't comment on the leaked list of school closings.

Parents, teachers and students at Holmes said they hope to fight the turnaround decision through a petition and protests. This is parent Ashley Palmer again:

PALMER: Oh, yes. I'm getting parents together now for that, because I do not want to see this school close.

Two parent meetings have been held at Holmes already, one this morning.

CLOSING
* Carpenter: Students will go to Ogden, Talcott and Lozano.
* Las Casas Occup. High School: Students will go to neighborhood schools.
* Nia Foundation: Students go to neighborhood schools.
* Peabody: Students will go to Ogden, Talcott and Lozano.
* Princeton: Students will go to neighborhood schools.
* South Chicago: Students will go to neighborhood schools.

CONSOLIDATING
* Abbott: Merged into Hendrix.
* Davis Developmental Center: Merged with Hughes in a new building.
* Global Vision High School: Merged into New Millennium.
* Medill: Merged into Smith-Joyner.
* Schiller: Merged into Jenner.

PHASING OUT
* Key: Students will go to Ellington.
* Lathrop: Students will go to Johnson and Lawndale.
* Hamilton: Students will go to Blaine, Burley and Audubon.
* Reed: Students will go to Banneker, Parker and Nicholson.
* Best Practice High School.

TURNING AROUND (staff to be replaced)
* Bethune
* Curtis
* Dulles
* Fenger High School
* Holmes
* Johnson
* Lavizzo
* Ross
* Yale