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Board Member Worries About Student Commutes if Neighborhood Schools Closed

By Chloe Riley | January 23, 2013 5:15pm | Updated on January 23, 2013 5:30pm
 Chicago Public School CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and CPS Chief Transformation Officer Todd Babbitz address the Chicago Board of Education Wednesday afternoon.
Chicago Public School CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and CPS Chief Transformation Officer Todd Babbitz address the Chicago Board of Education Wednesday afternoon.
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DNAinfo/Chloe Riley

CHICAGO — Board of Education members Wednesday expressed concerns about Chicago Public Schools' plans to close underutilized school buildings.

At a board meeting, Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett laid out guidelines for school closings that exempt high schools and elementary schools that are in the process of adding more grades. Officials also don't plan to close any high-performing elementary schools, which often have waiting lists to attend.

“This is really a tale of two cities,” Vice President Jesse Ruiz noted, referring to the how the district has some overcrowded schools in high demand and aong with underutilized neighborhood schools.

Every student affected by a school closing will have the option to enroll in a higher performing school, CPS Chief Transformation Officer Todd Babbitz said.

But board member Andrea Zoop said she was concerned that many students would face long commutes to these higher performing schools if their neighborhood school was shut down.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know how you’re going to do what you just said,” board member Andrea Zoop said.

Byrd-Bennett said she agreed.

“That’s a part of a very deep conversation we would expect and welcome from the community,” she said.

Officials also released details on what led to a decline in enrollment at some schools. Two-thirds of the decline for most schools could be attributed to a decrease in school-age children living in those areas, Byrd-Bennett said. An additional 18 percent of the decline was due to children in the area attending charter schools instead of the neighborhood school, while 8 percent went to other CPS schools.

Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) questioned what principals in her ward were supposed to do to keep kids in the neighborhood schools when recruiters from charter schools are going door to door to entice kids to their schools. She said the neighborhood schools aren't allowed to market their schools in this way, but board member Mahalia Hines suggested the schools could host events to bring in students.

Recently appointed board member Carlos Azcoitia said he was concerned about what will happen to the buildings that were closed, and asked whether the Commission on School Utilization would handle.

Byrd-Bennett said that was not something the commission would be in charge of, but stressed that she wanted the focus to be on the affected families before buildings.

“This is not about buildings to me,” she said. “This is about moving the heart, blood and soul of children and families.”

CPS will release a list of potential school closings on Feb. 13.

Meanwhile, Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) scolded the board at the start of the meeting for the district's announcement that it would the old Jones College Prep building as part of a doubling of the selective enrollment high school instead of turning it into a neighborhood school for West Loop, South Loop, Chinatown and Bronzeville residents.

“I am disappointed that CPS still has no plans to create a neighborhood school to serve this area,” he said.

John Jacoby, from the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, said he’d been working with CPS for over four years to get a neighborhood school for the downtown and nearby areas and felt betrayed by the decision to keep Jones as a selective enrollment school.

“Dr. Byrd, you get an ‘F’ on this assignment,” Jacoby said.

CPS officials did not discuss the plans for Jones Wednesday.