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CPS School Closings: Courtenay Community Divided Over Merger With Stockton

By Patty Wetli | April 12, 2013 4:13pm

LINCOLN SQUARE — Chicago Public Schools' proposed merger of Courtenay and Stockton elementaries has created a divisive atmosphere, but the lines aren't being drawn between the two schools.

They're being drawn among the Courtenay community.

The schism became apparent at Thursday night's public hearing, held at Amundsen High School, the second of three at which CPS officials are gathering feedback prior to the board's final vote in May on school closings.

Nearly 70 parents, teachers and community members turned out for the hearing, moderated by Tim Cawley, chief administrative officer for CPS, and Sebastien De Longeaux, CPS chief procurement officer.

For every parent supportive of the merger — Courtenay will vacate its Ravenswood campus, decamp to Stockton's building in Uptown, and then "welcome" Stockton at the new Courtenay — another strongly opposed the plan.

The latter faction stated a number of concerns, primarily the conversion of Courtenay from a lottery school to a neighborhood school. Among their assertions: Courtenay is the only school undergoing a change in enrollment policy as part of the closing plan.

Courtenay currently accepts students from across the city. Following the merger, it will assume Stockton's neighborhood boundaries, meaning Courtenay's out-of-boundary families will have to send younger siblings to a different school.

"Transforming Courtenay into a neighborhood school slams the door shut on sibling preference. Having my children attend two, or eventually three, different schools is ludicrous and a hardship, like this entire proposal," said Mila Cohen, mother of a second-grader at Courtenay.

"I will not tolerate CPS turning Courtenay into a neighborhood school," said Nastasia Lopez, who has two children enrolled at Courtenay. "Magnet schools give families like mine, who are unable to move to better districts, a chance at an equal opportunity for our children."

John Humpherys derided what he termed CPS' "semantic jujitsu" in calling Courtenay a welcoming school while in effect closing the school.

"Courtenay ceases to be Courtenay," he said. "We were deprived of the process" given to all other schools on the closing list. "Keep Courtenay lottery-based."

"There was no notice, no dialog and certainly no transparency," added Cohen. "The only rational explanation for this absurd proposal is that Courtenay has the misfortune to sit on a piece of real estate attractive to developers."

On the other side of the debate stood parents who welcome the move to a better facility — Courtenay lacks a gym, auditorium and science lab — and are up for the challenge of lifting Stockton to Courtenay's level of performance.

"We're going there to embrace Stockton. We're going to go to that school to help those children perform at a better level," said Stacy Walker, parent of four Courtenay students. "They said, 'No child left behind.'"

Gene DeRamus echoed his support for the merger, with a caveat.

"Courtenay's a world-class school with a safe environment. My words to [CPS network chief] Mr. Benes...the resulting school has to be the same," said DeRamus. "There's great potential but also great risk. There has to be a formal level of accountability at the network level."

Courtenay teachers in attendance also expressed their willingness to replicate Courtenay's success at Stockton.

"Courtenay has a long history of educating all children. We were the first school to educate HIV-positive children," said seventh-grade teacher Lindsay Annunzio. "The lottery is new. Up until two years ago, there was only one requirement — you walked in the door."

Kerry Martin has taught at Courtenay for 20 years and recalled the days when the school exclusively enrolled special education students.

"We've always been a diverse community. We're named after the woman who was on the forefront of free and appropriate education for all," Martin said, referencing Ethel Mary Courtenay, the first female superintendent of special education.

"I see this as a great opportunity for our kids and our families. Stockton needs kids and Courtenay has some. Courtenay needs a building and Stockton has a beautiful one. Let's make it work," she said.

Corinna Chau, parent of a seventh- and fifth-grader at Courtenay, said it's time for the bickering to end.

"I know what Courtenay teachers and administrators can do. That's not going to change, that's not going to go away," she said. "We rally together, we invest in our neighborhoods and we push our schools forward."

But Chau's reference to Courtenay's administration brought up one of the most pressing questions surrounding the proposed merger: Who will run the new school?

CPS has said Courtenay will be "in charge," with Stockton's Local School Council dissolving. But Courtenay's current principal, JoAnn Percel, retired in 2012 and has been acting in a consultant capacity, with help from assistant principal Tammy Lunetto.

Cassandra Vickas, a parent representative on Courtenay's LSC, said the search for a new principal is under way. The council has received 13 applications for the position and is in the process of winnowing candidates.

A public forum, involving both Courtenay and Stockton parents, will be held prior to making a final hiring decision, she said.

Vickas is optimistic about the potential of success for the new, merged Courtenay.

"I don't see why our hard-working teachers and parents can't make it a great school," she said. "The building doesn't make the school."