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Decision on School Closures Looms After Final Public Hearing

By Darryl Holliday | March 5, 2013 7:56am

NEAR WEST SIDE — With less than a month until Chicago Public Schools officials are expected to announce citywide school closures, parents, teachers, activists and students pleaded their case one last time.

Three schools in the Pilsen/Little Village network — Jungman, Paderewski and Pilsen elementary schools — were largely represented in the Malcolm X College auditorium for a final public meeting that drew hundreds Monday night, including Aldermen Danny Solis (25th), Ricardo Munoz (22nd) and Bob Fioretti (2nd).

Residents rejected the Chicago Public Schools list of potential closures before a row of CPS officials, including Stephen Zrike, chief of elementary schools in the network, who listened from a riser slightly above the crowd.

Like many speakers, 11-year-old Sinai Martinez said he feared the loss of relationships and stability that would occur if schools in the area closed.

"It'll be like if we lost part of our family," said the Jungman sixth-grader.

He smiled proudly and high-fived a row of Jungman students before sitting down.

Worries that children would be subjected to dangerous commutes if transferred — a repeated concern of parents throughout the citywide meetings — was echoed at the hearing.

Luz Cuadrado, a teacher of more than 15 years who has testified in the past, was the first to offer public testimony and within minutes had read more than 100 points detailing progress at her school.

Her 3½-page script contained a list of statistical improvements at Jungman, as well as a floor-by-floor numerical rundown of each classroom in the school and how it is used.

"The Commission [on School Utilization] clearly stated and recommended that CPS not close ... schools 'on the rise,'" she said. "Therefore, I ask you, if Jungman is not a 'school on the rise' then please tell us what is."

While a meeting for CPS' Pilsen/Little Village Network led to a police barricade on Feb. 7, Monday's meeting was orderly as dozens of speakers took to the podium.

Nelson Soza, executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, received some of the most raucous applause of the night when he urged residents to follow the money.

"Our community has fought really hard for the things we have today," he said to cheers. "We're not going to sit back and allow our resources to be used elsewhere."

One example is a $98 million grant to UNO in 2009 to build charter schools in Chicago, he said, noting the deal was found to be steeped in cronyism, as reported in the Sun-Times earlier this month.

"When the city wants money they find it," he later said.

There are 38 potential school closures in the Pilsen/Little Village network. Across the city, 129 schools are being considered for closure because CPS considers them to be underutilized.

At a Feb. 28 board meeting, CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett cited underutilization and a $1 billion budget deficit in calling for the school closures.

She has a deadline of March 31 to produce a list of schools to be shut down.