By SARA BURNETT and JASON KEYSER
William Penn Elementary School Council Representative Rev. Dr. Brian Henderson speaks at a news conference held by the Committee to Save North Lawndale Schools, Thursday, March 21, 2013, in Chicago. The city of Chicago has begun informing teachers about which public schools it intends to close under a contentious plan that opponents say will disproportionately affect minority students in the nation’s third largest school district. Chicago Public Schools hasn’t said how many schools or students will be affected, but administrators identified up to 129 schools that could be shuttered, saying many serve too few students to justify remaining open. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago teachers, students and parents began learning Thursday whether their schools are among those the city plans to close as part of a cost-cutting plan that opponents say will disproportionately affect minority children.
Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district, hasn’t said how many schools or students will be affected. Administrators identified up to 129 schools that could be shuttered, although the total number is expected to fall short of that number.
The district says many of those schools don’t serve enough students to justify remaining open, and that the closures will help it deal with a $1 billion budget shortfall and better allocate its resources to students.
The pending closures have been the subject of highly charged community meetings all over the city. Critics say that, among other things, the closures will threaten the safety of students who may have to cross gang boundaries if their schools are closed and that they will cause major inconveniences for families.
Chicago is among several major U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit, among others, to use mass school closures to reduce costs and offset declining enrollment.
The issue has led to yet another clash between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union over the direction of the city’s schools. A strike by the union’s 26,000 teachers last fall idled roughly 350,000 students for seven days, and Emanuel has clashed with the union over his push to lengthen the school day.
At Lafayette Elementary, a school in the Humboldt Park neighborhood where 95 percent of its 483 students come from low-income families, the principal read teachers a letter from the district Thursday saying the school is among those it plans to close, said teacher Rosemary Maurello.
Sandra Leon, who was picking up her two grandchildren from kindergarten at Lafayette, wept as she spoke to a reporter about the plans, which she heard about from their teacher in a tearful phone call.
“It’s been so good for our kids. This school is everything,” said Sandra Leon, whose children also attended the school.
The message read to Lafayette teachers said a final decision would be made in May after more community meetings are held and budget plans are reviewed. But Maurello said letters and information packets were already being sent to parents, and the district’s message to teachers included a mention of specific plans to move the Lafayette students to another school about 10 blocks away.
“It sounds like a done deal to me,” Maurello said.
Like many teachers, she is worried about where her students will end up. As a tenured teacher, the contract allows her to follow her students to their new school, but she wonders if some of them will opt to go to other schools instead.
The district has plans for community organizations to help students get to their new locations safely, but Maurello wonders how long that will last.
“I truly believe that it’s going to be chaos,” she said.
Many of the schools targeted for possible closure are in parts of south and west Chicago that are beset by gang violence and that have the highest homicide rates, leading to concerns for the safety of students who might have to enter areas farther from home to get to their new schools. Chicago registered more than 500 homicides last year for the first time since 2008.
That violence has hit areas like North Lawndale, where 59-year-old Eular Hatchett walks her 13-year-old nephew, DaVontay Horace, to school to ensure he gets there safely.
“Our parents know about this area,” she said. “They don’t know about those other areas. If they send him way north or way south, I’m not going to do that. It’s too dangerous.”
When she dropped her nephew off at Henson Elementary on Thursday, teachers were coming out of a meeting looking distraught and with their heads down, leading her to suspect that it’s among those that will close. The teachers told her and others that they weren’t permitted to talk about it.
For some of the affected children, it would be the second time in recent years that they’ve been displaced. When Chicago closed many of its public housing high-rises in recent years, school closings followed.
Many teachers and parents expressed anger and frustration at how the news of the school closures trickled out, leaving some to agonize over rumor and conjecture, instead learning the list of schools in one official announcement.
“In a word, the approach was brutal. It’s certainly not deserved by these parents and these kids,” said Mary Visconti, the director of the Better Boys Foundation, a youth organization in Lawndale.
A member of the City Council who represents the area, Michael Chandler, told a community gathering that he was informed Wednesday night of two Lawndale schools that will be closing, but he didn’t name them.
Chicago Public Schools has until March 31 to announce which of the 129 schools it will close.
After published reports late Wednesday said the announcement would occur Thursday, a CPS spokeswoman said she could not confirm that information. The district released a one paragraph statement from CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett that reiterated that the announcement would be soon.
“For too long children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom because they are in underutilized, under resourced schools,” Byrd-Bennett said in the statement.
The district did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
The list will not be final until the Chicago Board of Education votes on it in late May.
The Chicago Teachers Union, which has vigorously fought the closure plans, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.