BRONZEVILLE — Chicago Public Schools' plan to close 54 schools will take a psychological toll on students and parents, further dividing communities already strained by gang rivalries, speakers said Saturday at a hearing before two Chicago congressmen.
CPS' plan to close 54 "underutilized" schools to alleviate a $1 billion budget deficit is "unjust and dangerous," said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) at the hearing before U.S. Reps. Danny Davis and Bobby Rush (D-Chicago).
"It has pitted neighbor against neighbor and community against community, having a severe psychological effect," Fioretti said. People wonder, "What did my teachers do wrong? What did my principals do wrong? What did I do wrong as a parent, that our school had to close?"
Student Jasmin Murphy, who went through the closing of Guggenheim Elementary in 2012, said she saw many of her classmates take the closure personally.
"It made students feel like they aren’t smart," she said. "We had a school community. [Then] we were all broken up."
Three CPS officials spoke at the forum at Quinn AME Chapel, 2401 S. Wabash Ave., but they were met with frequent jeers from the crowd of about 150.
Members of the audience — many wearing Chicago Teachers Union and Action Now t-shirts — yelled, "sabotage," "lies," and "your brain is underutilized." Two men had been removed earlier from the event for repeatedly shouting out.
Jadine Chou, CPS chief officer of safety and security, said "social and emotional skill building" at closing and welcoming schools will start being implemented "immediately" to help prevent future conflict.
Many community members and local leaders spoke about the danger of merging schools in communities fractured by gangs. Passionate speeches often lead to standing ovations and chants of "Whose schools? Our schools!"
Murphy, the student who went through the Guggenheim's closing, said students feeling down and out of place because of school closings are easy targets for gangs.
"Gang members will try to recruit them to help expand their gang, and students are afraid to say no," she said.
Chou said CPS is continually developing and revising specific plans with Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and the Chicago Police Department to address safety.
"It is so important to us that these concerns are addressed," she said.
All welcoming schools will have additional security technology such as video cameras, and a Safe Passage program to protect children on their walk to school, Chou said.
"We're going to need involvement of community and the parents," she said. "We really look forward to working with you on that."
CPS chief officer of networks Denise Little said the closings would require both security and emotional support for children.
"The impact on the community?" she said, responding to the question from Rush. "It's going to be tough...[There have] to be actions taken between both ascending and welcoming schools to mend relationships, to provide support to those parents and those teachers where the school will be closing. It is going to take a process. It is not a quick thing."
Rush criticized the plan to close 54 schools at once, a tactic another speaker referred to "ripping it off like a band-aid."
"There is no way that you’re going to heal these neighborhoods," Rush said. "If it was just Henson [Elementary in Englewood]…but you're talking about 53 schools...all at the same time. It is unheard of in the history of this state."
When Rush got cheers from the overwhelmingly anti-CPS, crowd, he clarified his position to the CPS officials.
"I'm not trying to speak for the crowd," he said. "I'm speaking from what I know, and what I've seen, and what I'm afraid of, and what I fear."