CITY HALL — Parents and neighborhood groups from across the city protested outside the Office of the Mayor Tuesday to combat plans to close public schools.
Wendy Katten, a Chicago Public Schools parent and director of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, called it a "myth" that the city has 330 "underutilized" schools and 140 "half-empty," as claimed by the district.
"It isn't true," Katten said, calling it "a very flawed formula" CPS has based on the standard of 36 kids in a classroom. That, she said, underestimated overcrowding and overestimated underuse.
"This is simply inaccurate," responded CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll. "Our formula is based on the board's class-size policy whose average is 30 students per class. The fact is that we have space for 511,000 students, but only have 403,000 enrolled in our schools, and nearly 140 school are half-empty."
Regardless, many parents said each school needs to be judged on its own terms.
"The formula is not a cookie-cutter formula," added Ali Burke, a parent and Local School Council member at Trumbull Elementary School in Andersonville. "It doesn't work on every school."
Like many of the dozens of protesters and several speakers from across the city, Burke said basing closings strictly on "utilization" ignored the unique qualities of each school. Trumbull, she said, has 36 percent of its students using English as a second language and 30 percent in special education. Allowing for that, she said the school principal had estimated utilization at 81 percent, high above the CPS estimate of 54 percent.
Burke said an attempt to have Raise Your Hand come in and assess the school's utilization independently had been blocked by the CPS local network chief.
Katten decried "making decisions from a spreadsheet. The CPS spreadsheet does not reflect reality."
CPS has said it has to close schools to address a budget deficit projected at $400 million and released a list of "underutilized" schools. It faces a state-imposed deadline at the end of March to announce the closings for the fall, and 100 schools or more could be shut down. CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett did recently announce that high schools would not be part of the closures.
Torrence Shorter, a parent and LSC member at Ryerson School in Humboldt Park, echoed other parents in saying, "Ryerson Elementary School is not just for the kids. It's for the community."
Josh Hartwell, an LSC member at Gale School in Rogers Park, called the school a "pillar" for "a community of transition," rich with newly arrived immigrants.
"It's not underutilized," he added. "It's actually efficient."
Professor Stephanie Farmer, of Roosevelt University's Sociology Department, said research shows that students moving from a closed underperforming school are usually simply shuttled to another underperforming school.
"School closures have not led to better academic performance," Farmer said, citing data showing that closings tend to increase the dropout rate and do not produce as much savings as anticipated — well under $1 million a school.
Many parents said closing schools would subject students to dangers crossing gang turf and drug-ridden areas.
"Why jeopardize the physical and emotional safety of our children?" said Martha Ramirez, a parent at Jungman Elementary School in Pilsen. "We want equal opportunity and equal education."
Katten suggested the $89 million budgeted for CPS' Portfolio Office, intended to help close schools, open schools and search out quality schools, would be better spent in the classroom, saying, "We want CPS to shut this office down and invest that money in all of our schools."
Katten also hit the apparent CPS hypocrisy of closing public schools while approving new charter schools, saying, "They helped create their own crisis."
CPS' Carroll denied that.
"The utilization crisis facing our district was created in large part to the loss of 145,000 school-age children in Chicago since 2000, primarily from the South and West Sides," she said. "This is stretching our limited resources much too thin, and we can no longer put off making the difficult decisions needed to right-size our district."