CITY HALL — Parents and community activists have formally invited Mayor Rahm Emanuel to "walk the walk" when it comes to the controversial plans to shutter 54 public schools in Chicago.
And they say they literally mean "walk the walk."
Parents and members of organizations, including Blocks Together and the Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education, rallied on the fifth floor of City Hall, just outside Emanuel's office Tuesday morning to protest the proposed closures.
The protesters invited Emanuel to join planned weekly walks from schools slated to close to the schools that would receive the displaced students.
Cecile Carroll, a director of the group Blocks Together, said the walks will "shed light on the reality of the distances [children would have to walk to their new schools], safety concerns and potential for overcrowding" that would result from the proposed closures.
"Mr. Emanuel, I would love to meet you on 67th and Ashland, where I'm from, and give you a tour," Carroll said as she and other protesters criticized the mayor for not personally visiting some of the schools CPS has elected to close.
Carroll said the schools slated to close "are anchors in their community and instead of being abandoned, they should be supported."
Joining Carroll was Stephanie Farmer, a professor of sociology at Roosevelt University and a member of CREATE. Farmer said the group recently researched school closures in other cities as well as previous school closures in Chicago.
Based on the group's findings, Farmer argued that the decision to close 54 schools would "contribute to a separate and unequal education" in Chicago. In the past, merging schools have increased the likelihood affected students will drop out of school or move schools again, causing them to fall behind academically, Farmer said.
Chicago should consider alternatives to closing schools, she concluded.
"For the schools that are so-called underutilized, we recommend that they turn into a community center where half the school is a school for kids and the other half can be a school for parents to take GED classes or other basic skills training classes," Farmer said.
Frederico Waitoller, a special education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the closures would heavily affect CPS students with special needs.
Students with individualized education plans — a required, personal education plan for each CPS student deemed to have special needs — will most likely need their plans adjusted if sent to a new school, Waitoller said.
"Those plans need to fixed, need to be edited," Waitoller said. "From just a bureaucratic point of view, an organizational point of view, it's a huge task in a very short amount of time."
Waitoller estimated CPS has about 6,000 special education students, based on numbers from the Illinois State Board of Education.
Parents also shared concerns about children's safety if students have to take new routes to walk to school.
Torrence Shorter, a parent and Local School Council member at Ryerson Elementary, said he is concerned students will have to cross streets controlled by drug dealers in his neighborhood if Ryerson and Laura Ward Elementary School are merged.
Shorter said that given the safety issues, he felt insulted Emanuel and CPS want to close Ryerson.
"I feel like you're slapping me in the face," Shorter said. "I want you to walk that walk with us."
CPS officials responded Tuesday with a statement estimating students will have to walk less than two blocks further, on average, to reach their new 'welcoming' schools under the proposed closures.
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said in a statement CPS has a safety plan for the transition period.
"CEO Byrd-Bennett knows that consolidating schools can be emotional and difficult, but by doing so we will be able to provide students with a quality, 21st-century education they deserve," Carroll said in a statement.
A representative from the mayor's office promised to pass along the group's information to Emanuel on Tuesday.
Mayoral spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton issued a statement Tuesday afternoon that also said CPS is working with the police department and clergy members in affected communities to ensure student safety.
"It is our responsibility to ensure that every child has a quality education," Hamilton said in a statement. "This decision was difficult, and it was not taken lightly, but it is a necessary one that has been put off for more than a decade."
Organizers said their first walk is scheduled for Tuesday and will begin at William H. King Elementary School, 740 S. Campbell Ave.