FULLER PARK — By bus and in groups, hundreds of fired-up parents, teachers and activists arrived at the second round of a Chicago Public Schools-hosted forum for the Pershing Network, a group of elementary schools on the Southwest Side.
Unlike the last network meeting, held before CPS released its list of 129 schools eyed for potential closure, this time the stakes were higher.
Seven elementary schools in the area could be closed by the start of the next school year, and Thursday’s forum at the Fuller Park fieldhouse drew pleas from supporters desperate to keep their buildings open.
They brought with them concerns about disrupting the routines of special education students, about ending decades of family legacies at local schools.
They admonished network leaders for potentially making kids cross gang boundaries and for perhaps shutting down the last remaining institutions in impoverished neighborhoods in the network, which cuts through Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Chinatown, Bronzeville, Brighton Park and Englewood.
District officials reminded the crowd that the list of seven schools targeted for closure remains preliminary.
Still, faculty at nearly all of the schools have taken issue with the way CPS has calculated building utilization — its main criteria for potential closings — which put their schools on the list in the first place.
Dewey Elementary Academy of Fine Arts principal Eric Dockery said CPS labeled his school as 53 percent utilized. But Dockery has his own calculation, one that considers capacity for special education and pre-kindergarten rooms as well as the school's emphasis on small class sizes and spaces for unique programs.
Taken together, he said, that puts the school at 85 percent utilized. Dockery said he submitted that information to CPS and "hopefully I hear back."
"I am not making this up."
John Nichols, principal Graham Elementary in Canaryville, said the utilization issue at his school, which uses two buildings, could easily be solved. In prepared remarks, the eighth-year principal said Graham's 498 total students could all fit in the main building, which as a capacity of 570.
"If our students consolidated into the main building we would be at 87 percent utilized. Then take us off the underutilized list," he said.
Kurt Jones, principal at Englewood's Libby Elementary and Middle School, has said CPS erred in its calculations of utilization. He also said the school is home to a number of after-school activities, thanks to a partnership with the YMCA. If the school closes, those crucial ties would be severed.
And he's worried about the safety of students if the school shutters.
Earlier this year, Libby grad Christopher Lattin Jr. was shot 17 times and killed at Loomis and Garfield, about a block away from Libby's attendance boundary.
"We know how personal the boundary lines are. He couldn't cross 55th without getting gunned down," Jones said. "He was still one of ours."
Faculty and parents from McClellan Elementary in Bridgeport again gave impassioned speeches about their school’s robust autism program. Faculty members have said CPS counted three small rooms dedicated to autistic students as regular classrooms, which altered the school's utilization rate.
Josephine Norwood, a Bronzeville mother who now sends her autistic son to McClellan after two other school closings, most recently at Abbott Elementary.
"Every time that he moves we’re told the same promise, that this is the last time, that it won’t happen again," she said. "The program at this school is something that CPS should be proud of. Because it’s working. It’s working.”
A district spokeswoman has said CPS is "developing a comprehensive plan for transitioning any impacted students with disabilities." But the district hasn't released its plan yet, and likely won't until its final list of schools recommended for closure are OK'd by schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett.
That deadline is March 31.
On Twitter, critics had chastised CPS for a change in the forum's setup — representatives from the seven schools were broken up into three separate auditoriums — as a "divide-and-conquer" move on the part of the district.
Victor Simon, Pershing Network chief, said that's a "fair perspective to hold," but said configuration was designed to allow speakers from each school more time at the pulpit, this time 15 minutes instead of six or seven.
Some school leaders addressed another concern, that of the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), a two-weeks long examination scheduled to begin March 4.
Earlier this week, Jones said the ISAT is a time of intense pressure for faculty and students. Already, he said, the school is filled with anxiety as the decision on the school's future looms large.
"It's really hard to fathom what students and teachers are going through when they have a big X on their back," he said.