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Parents brace for school closings

When Maria Hernandez read in the newspaper Monday that her daughter’s school could be closed, she had one thought:

“Here we go again,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez fought a plan to “phase out” her daughter’s West Town school two years ago— and lost. Carpenter Elementary School has gradually been shrinking since; it stopped taking new students and this year enrolls 138 children from second through eighth grade. Younger siblings are assigned to another school.

Meanwhile, a new high school, Ogden International, has taken over part of Carpenter, with plans to expand as Carpenter shrinks.

To Hernandez, it’s the educational version of the gentrification that has marked her neighborhood.

“The high school wanted to move in, the high school has money,” says Hernandez. “Most of the cars you see coming into our neighborhood now are Mercedes, limos, some kids get there in taxis.”

Interim schools chief Terry Mazany has said there are too many schools for the number of students enrolled in the district. He told WBEZ earlier this month he estimated Chicago might close between 10 and 30 schools over the next two years. Specific schools slated for closure are expected to be announced Wednesday.

The number of schools in the district has burgeoned over the last decade, even as enrollment has declined. Growth in schools has been fueled by an expansion of charter schools and Mayor Richard Daley’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, which added 103 new schools over the last five years in an effort to improve educational offerings. The Board approved seven additional new schools—five of them charters—in the last two months.

In the 2000-2001 school year, Chicago had 596 schools and a total enrollment of 435,470 students. Last year, the district had 675 schools and 409,279 students, according to an annual CPS budget report. The number of charter schools increased from 13 to 71 in the same time.

Under-enrolled schools like Carpenter, which has not been allowed to take in new students since the Board of Education voted to phase it out, are costly. District records indicate CPS spent $16,737 per pupil last year educating Carpenter students. About 8 blocks away, Talcott Elementary—where Carpenter students might be sent—spends $10,024 per pupil. Chicago faces a $720 million budget shortfall, school officials say.

But a state task force looking into Chicago school closings says CPS is underestimating how much space students need, and counts as under-enrolled schools with amenities such as libraries, science labs, art rooms or parent rooms.

The Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force is urging Chicago to come up with an overarching facilities plan it renews every 10 years.

Valencia Rias, a member of the committee, said Chicago needs a school closing procedure “that (would) require educational impact statements, that …would require input from the community first, before you go and make a decision.”

“This is totally opposite of the recommendations we’ve come up with,” Rias said. “This is a top-down decision.”

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