NEAR WEST SIDE — Schools that specialize in special education or that straddle gang turf took the spotlight at an emotionally charged school-closing meeting Tuesday night.
The meeting, at First Baptist Congregational Church, 1613 W. Washington Blvd., was called to discuss the short list of schools in the Chicago Public School's Fulton Network being considered for closure or consolidation.
Students, teachers and parents broke into tears in their last chance to make their cases for keeping their schools open.
Hecklers interrupted newly hired CPS Chief Transformation Officer Todd Babbitz as he tried to tell the crowd that the purpose of the meeting was for CPS to "know why your school is special."
"You already know all of that!" one person shouted from a crowd of more than 700 students, teachers, principals, community leaders and activists who packed the pews and balcony of the church.
Two of the dozen schools on the Fulton Network's proposed closure/consolidation list, Montefiore, 1310 S. Ashland Ave., and Near North, 739 N. Ada St., are classified as special ed schools, with 100 percent of their enrollment made up of students in special education.
At Near North, 70 percent of students are on medication, some for schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said.
"The Board of Education has treated [Near North] as a stepchild. We shouldn't treat them unfairly," said Burnett.
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) charged that "CPS wants to privatize special ed.
"How they are reacting to kids with special needs is morally reprehensible," Fioretti said, adding that he objected to the six minutes allotted to each school to defend itself.
Lafayette Elementary in Humboldt Park has close to a third of its students enrolled in special education programs.
"The environment at Lafayette is so welcoming, they embrace you when you walk in the door," said a mother of two who broke into tears.
The audience gave a standing ovation to Javier Villagomez, a seventh-grade student with autism who has gone to Lafayette School since preschool, after his appeal to the CPS utilization committee.
"At school, I have learned how to read, write, add, subtract and talk a lot," the boys said. "So please, do not close down my school."
Some complained that Markay L. Winston, head of the CPS office of special education and supports, was not at the meeting.
Meanwhile, an eighth-grade student from Peabody School in West Town told the committee that if Peabody were to close, he would have to walk 7½ blocks to the nearest school.
The student noted that the first murder of the year was in West Town: Octavius Dontrell Lamb, a member of the Wells Community Academy High School student government and JROTC, was shot in the 700 block of North Noble Street in the early hours of Jan. 1.
"I would be crossing across gang lines and a busy intersection to get to school," the student added.
Ald. Danny Solis (25th) criticized the committee's process and told them "this is akin to asking a mother or father to pick which child can survive."
CPS must decide by March 31 which of the 129 schools remaining on a citywide list will close or be consolidated.