Residents Blame CHA for School Closures

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Attendance is low in our community because redevelopment is slow,” declared William Fleming, a resident of the Cabrini-Green pubic housing complex, to members of the Chicago Board of Education on Feb. 25. Fleming’s daughter attends Schiller Elementary School, 640 W. Scott St. Next school year, Schiller will be consolidated because of low enrollment. It will cease to exist and students will be re-enrolled into Jenner Elementary, 1119 N. Cleveland Ave.

William Fleming, a resident fo the Cabrini-Green public housing complex, testifying at the Chicago Board of Education hearings on school closures in February 2009. Fleming expressed concerns about the possibility of overcrowding that could result from relocating Schiller Elementary School students into a nearby school.
Photo by Mary C. Johns

Fleming was among many voices addressing school officials over the changes to the school system. He and other public housing residents blamed the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) Plan for Transformation for the closings, turnarounds, consolidations and phase outs of 16 public schools in predominantly African American and Latino low-income neighborhoods. “In Cabrini-Green, we have a right to return, a federal right to return,” Fleming said. “Over 600 [public housing] units will be built within the next 18 months with the minimal bedroom size being three for Chicago school children between K and eighth [grade],” he added.

Many students from the Cabrini-Green public housing complex will soon be relocated from Friedrich Von Schiller School and consolidated into another area school in the next school year.
Photo by Mary C. Johns

Fleming and others were concerned about the potential for violence resulting from the school consolidations, which could lead to overcrowding in the classroom. “These closings, turnarounds and consolidations are directly responsible for the spike in violence around these children,” Fleming testified to the School Board members.

Fleming, who describes himself as a “human rights observer and monitor” and recently took part in a United Nations forum, said the Chicago Pubic Schools (CPS) was breaking the law as well, and suggested the Board members consider the rights of parents and children. “Parents have the prior right to choose the kind of education that a child should be given. I am asking this board on behalf of parents, students, educators of low-income communities, and most importantly our children, our future, that this board takes precautionary measures by immediately imposing a moratorium on the school closing and consolidations and turnarounds until there’s a thorough, truthful study and investigation into the detrimental affect these non-democratic decisions have had on our communities, our families, educators and our children’s right to life,” he said.

School Board officials said consolidation at Cabrini-Green wouldn’t cause overcrowding. In a report to the Board of Education on Feb. 25, CPS communications officer David Pickens said the 190 children enrolled in Schiller for the 2008 school year will added to the 428 students enrolled at Jenner Elementary, which has the capacity for 930 students.

Tenants Fail to Save their School
“To me, this is a wonderful school. The teachers along with the principal always motivate me. That’s the reason why I don’t want this school to close down,” said 8-year-old Rekia Flowers, a resident at the CHA’s Wentworth Gardens public housing development and a third grade student at the Robert Sengstacke Abbott School during an early morning protest and press conference outside of the school the day before the Board hearing. Abbott, 3630 S. Wells St. adjacent to Wentworth Gardens, is named after the founder of the Chicago Defender, one of the oldest and best-known African American newspapers.

Rekia’s was among the several voices of those rallying to save the over-a-century-old school. But her little voice fell on deaf ears. The next day, the School Board voted to close Abbott and consolidate the students into Hendricks Elementary Community Academy, 4316 S. Princeton Ave.

Protestors cited CPS data showing that Hendricks was a lower performing school and said students will have to be bussed to the new school. Beatrice Harris, the Local Advisory Council president at Wentworth Gardens, told Residents’ Journal just before the press conference that she agreed with Fleming that redevelopment of the public housing site left schools with under-enrollment. “That’s when it started,” Harris said. “About four or five years ago when the people relocated with Section 8s. “Most of them were young people with kids,” Harris explained. They had to enroll them in a school where they went. So that left this school with no kids.”

According to Education.com, Hendricks is already at the Illinois average of 16 students per full-time equivalent teacher. But Pickens said during his report to the Board of Education that Abbott’s consolidation wouldn’t create an overcrowded situation. He reported that the 115 students enrolled in Abbott in 2008 will be added to the 297 students enrolled at Hendricks.

Claudia Elliott, who has lived at Wentworth since 1982, told RJ after the press conference that she didn’t like the thought of her three grandchildren relocating to Hendricks because it’s located in a crime-ridden area. “I am here today fighting because my grandkids are going here,” Elliot said. “Two of them were transferred from Hendricks to where they’re trying to send the kids. And it’s really bad down there. A boy was shot a month ago. “My [grand] kids came out two years ago, and my daughter brought them to Abbott.One of them is really [disabled] and he’s doing well here. So he doesn’t want to leave because he’s doing well here. He told me, ‘Granny I am tired of moving from one school to the other one,’” Elliott said.
Abbott School currently serves a disproportionately high population of special needs students, including those with autism. Elliott said the school transition would cause instability in her disabled grandchild’s life. “He’s 10 years old and he’s been in three schools. That’s too much for a small kid to handle,” she said.

Grand Boulevard Federation Concerns with Abbott’s School Consolidation
The non-profit Grand Boulevard Federation’s education initiative, which has been working with Wentworth residents for years, tracks school closings and re-openings in the larger Douglas and Grand Boulevard community areas. The Grand Boulevard Federation found that 15 schools have closed and 13 schools have re-opened in those areas, according to a media release distributed at the press conference.

The Grand Boulevard Federation is concerned about the impact on the State Street Corridor from closing neighborhood schools serving CHA residents on the northern end. The Federation noted that the buildings are turned over to the Renaissance 2010 lottery and selective enrollment operators without mandating the new schools serve students from the area as well as those who are displaced. The Federation stated there are four under-enrolled neighborhood schools within a 1.5 mile radius on the southern end and no neighborhood schools on the other end.

“The Abbott closure mirrors this same plan of attack by CPS in moving primarily CHA students from the north and shuffling them further south,” said Andrea Lee, the Federation’s education coordinator, during the press conference. “This is a lack of planning on CPS’ behalf. Now when Federation points out that they will need a neighborhood school somewhere along the northern end of State Street, the school buildings have already been turned over to Renaissance 2010 operators, where not one school prioritized having attendance area boundaries and serving families that had been displaced, and CPS was OK with that.

“This is why we can’t always believe that under-enrollment is the real reason behind school closures, and why facilities master planning is important. The Federation has formed its own facilities committee because CPS wasn’t doing this,” said Lee. “For many, the school is their stability when their own lives are immobile and they face challenges of low-income means, and yet Abbott helps children learn.”

Lee reported that since the announcement of school’s consolidation, Abbott parents and Federation allies made phone calls to the House Education Committee to support House Bill 363, state Rep. Cynthia Soto’s proposal that calls for a one-year moratorium on school closings. Soto’s bill also asks for CPS to form a facilities planning committee to review a longer-term school closing and opening plan. More than a dozen community allies wrote letters of support for Abbott families, including state Senator Mattie Hunter (D-IL), who supports Soto’s bill.

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