CPS School Closings Meeting Gets Heated as Protesters Shout Down Officials

By Benjamin Woodard and Adeshina Emmanuel  on January 28, 2013 7:48pm  | Updated on January 28, 2013 9:16pm

UPTOWN — Chanting "Save our schools" and "No school closings," several hundred parents, teachers and community members refused to let Chicago Public Schools officials speak during a public hearing on school closings Monday night in Uptown.

Attendees filled the bleachers and stood against the wall at Truman College for the opening meeting in the second phase of community hearings being held around the city on the district's plan to close underutilized schools.

But district officials had a tough time even making a prepared presentation as crowds shouted and chanted. As one official tried to outline the district's vision, someone shouted, "Do you believe him?" "No!" the crowd answered.

Craig Benes, who oversees schools in the North Side's Ravenswood-Ridge region, was even heckled at one point when he said he wanted "to just step away from the agenda for a moment and speak from my heart. ... I understand that teachers and parents are concerned" — but he asked for the audience's ear.

He did not get it. The crowd started chanting, "Save our schools! Save our schools!"

The meeting got so heated that the principal at Brenneman Elementary School, 4251 N. Clarendon Ave., decided to leave along with the dozens of children who had come with her.

After the first part of the meeting, Uptown activist Ryan Polker, 22, whose dad and grandparents were teachers, grabbed a microphone at the front of the gym and screamed, "The voice of teachers, students, neighborhoods, are not being heard. ... The community feedback is simple, just one sentence: zero school closings."

Some, including teachers from Stockton Elementary School, 4420 N. Beacon St., refused to attend the breakout sessions designed to gain input from the community later in the meeting. The meetings were run by independent facilitators who don't work for the district, which was criticized by some at the meeting.

Education activist Tim Furman was furious the district planned to bar members of the media from the sessions.

"Reporters ask questions to find the truth," he said.

At a later breakout session with about 40 people, the mood was more subdued. But parents still expressed concern they didn't know what was going to happen.

"CPS is keeping parents in the dark about their plan," said Josh Hartwell, who has two kids who attend Gale Community Academy. "We as parents are concerned."

At another session focusing on Uptown schools, parents expressed concerns about shuffling kids around in a neighborhood with ongoing gang tensions; closing schools without accounting for the high percentage of special ed and special needs students; and the proliferation of charter schools.

Benes refused to comment to a reporter at the meeting.

But district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement issued beforehand that "it is crucial that our school communities are active participants in this process and that they receive the respect they deserve by being involved on the front end of this process. I urge all members of our school communities to attend both meetings in their area so that their input and feedback can inform my team as we continue this important work.”

The district is expected to settle on a final list of schools slated for closure in March. The district has said that all high schools and any high-performing school would not be closed.

The schedule for the rest of the meetings across the city this week is as follows:

• Tuesday: Midway Network at Daley College, 7-9 p.m.
• Tuesday: O’Hare Network at Wright College, 7-9 p.m.
• Wednesday: Lake Calumet Network at Olive Harvey College, 7-9 p.m.
• Thursday: Austin-North Lawndale Network at Friendship MB Church, 7-9 p.m.
•  Saturday: Englewood-Gresham Network at Kennedy King College, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

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