WEST TOWN — In an attempt to save their school from closure, nearly 100 students, teachers, and parents from Peabody Elementary, some in tears, on Monday night argued CPS was making a dangerous mistake in shutting the West Town school.
Some participating in the first of two public "feedback" meetings said they feared for student safety in an area with a street gang presence.
"We know for you, it's the money you will save," said Maria Rubio, a mother of three children and a 1996 graduate of Peabody.
"[But] who will be responsible for the safety of our kids who will have to go through gang territory?" she said. "Who can assure us that a stray bullet won't land in one of our kids?"
During the two-hour meeting at Roberto Clemente High School, 40 spoke before Luis Soria, chief of schools for CPS' Midway Network, and Elizabeth Cardenas, director of CPS' department of Language and Cultural Education.
Soria and Cardenas are not on the CPS board's closure committee.
Peabody teacher Lisa Lane praised Soria and Cardenas for being attentive and taking notes but said, "The people who make you come here should be embarrassed by letting you do their job for them."
Maria Reyes, a school clerk at Peabody for 22 years, said there are "two kinds of gangs" between Augusta Boulevard and Grand Avenue.
Referring to the children now having to walk to Otis, Reyes asked, "Who will be responsible for safety?"
A mother of a sixth grade special education student, who spoke through a translator, said her son "feels worried."
"We know there are drugs, gangs and sex predators in our area," the mother said.
The meeting was charged with emotion, with parents and students touting honors that Peabody has received, including a Macy's "one in a 100 grant" to perform the school's first-ever musical. The school has also collaborated with organizations like 826CHI, a non-profit tutoring center, and the Vittum Theatre.
"The feeling one gets in our classrooms through collaborations is electric and yet CPS wants to pull the plug," said Peter Simpson, a fourth grade teacher at Peabody, calling the closing an "outrageous moment in Chicago's history."
Marilena Marchetti, an occupational therapist who works at three schools targeted for closing — Peabody, Manierre and Near North — said the solution to CPS' budget problems was not in shutting schools but ending Tax Increment Financing and high-interest bank contracts that siphon money from education.
Stephen Rynkiewicz, a board member on the East Village Association said the consolidation of Peabody and Otis "changes the nature of neighborhood schools when there are no schools in our neighborhood."
Rynkiewicz also expressed concern that, according to a CPS analysis, Otis needs $12 million in updates and wondered "how that's going to proceed."
At least a half dozen speakers referenced nearby Noble Charter School at 1010 N. Noble St. which they believe is planning to expand to a middle school campus on the Peabody campus.
"The albatross around our neck continues to be the Noble charters. With political connections they are likely to get their way," said Maria Lacko, a 40-year veteran of Peabody who now teaches part-time as a literacy instructor.
Among the many students to testify was a teary Ruby Martinez, 9, a fourth grader at Peabody, who said, "If I change schools I won't see my teachers or friends. I feel sad."
After the meeting, Annie Camecho, assistant principal of Peabody School, said the public meetings are "for show...just window dressing."
She added that Peabody has many new young teachers who "took a chance" working at the school, moving from outside the city to the neighborhood.
"No one's talking about the adults either, all of these people looking for new jobs," Camecho said.
CPS, in a statement issued by its Office of Communication Monday night, thanked the people who "provided us with their feedback" at meetings across the city.
"We know this isn't easy for many members of our school communities, but this work will provide children in underutilized, under-resourced schools the investments that parents and teachers agree students need to be successful," CPS said.
The statement cited libraries, air conditioning and science and computer labs that will be available in the "welcoming" schools that will accept the students who are being relocated.
In response to alleged rumors about Noble Charter school being interested in acquiring Peabody's campus, Angela Montagna, director of external affairs for Noble Network, reached out to DNAinfo.com Chicago with the following statement Tuesday:
"Noble has operated a public charter high school in West Town since 1999. While we have grown to operate three public charter high schools in this community, we have no plans to open a middle school in Peabody Elementary or any other building in the community," Montagna wrote.
The next meeting for Peabody will be held 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday at Clemente, 1147 N. Western Ave. A public hearing is then scheduled for 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. April 18 at the CPS Central Office, 125 S. Clark St.
CPS is expected to make a final decision on school closures and consolidations in May.