NEAR NORTH SIDE — Jenner Elementary Principal Robert E. Croston made an impassioned plea to save his school at a community meeting this week to discuss the potential merger with overcrowded Ogden International School.
Croston choked up while talking about what will happen to his under-enrolled school if it doesn't merge with Ogden.
Despite the fact that Chicago Public Schools is still operating under a five year-moratorium on school closures that took effect after the 50 school closures in 2013, Croston seemed worried about Jenner's uncertain future.
"I'm speaking from my heart. I can't do anything else ... We have 240 students right now. [Our] school last year was projected to have 207 students," he said, beginning to cry. "That's how we lost our $310,000. So if we don't increase enrollment, how can we convince the board to keep the school open?"
Listen to Croston's full remarks here:
Jenner was projected to lose 14 students this school year, which meant the school lost $326,533 because of the district's student-based budgeting, according to CPS data. But it ended up exceeding the district's projection by the 20th day of school, bringing in 240 students and gaining back $15,530.
"For my families, those who love Jenner, those who live near Jenner, if we don't do anything, you'll have a new principal. It probably won't be [Ogden Principal] Dr. Beyer. It probably won't be me," he said.
"I'm not going to stand and watch our school lose music, lose science, lose art and lose teachers. You all can find someone else to do that job because it will not be me."
Croston's remarks earned him a standing ovation and rousing applause from members of both school communities at the Near North Unity Program meeting at LaSalle Street Church, 1111 N. Wells St.
The meeting was held to discuss the proposed plan to merge Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts, 1119 N. Cleveland Ave., which draws mostly low-income students from the former Cabrini Green housing project area, with overcrowded Ogden, 24 W. Walton St., which draws students from the affluent Gold Coast.
The plan has gained momentum recently, with Ogden's Local School Council voting in favor of moving the conversation forward despite some opposition from parents and Jenner's Local School Council chairwoman getting more than 60 parent signatures in support.
At the meeting, parents and teachers from both schools and a former Ogden student spoke in favor of the plan, calling it everything from a "win-win situation" to a "natural solution." But a couple of Jenner teachers said they were offended when some members of the Ogden community acted "pleasantly surprised" by the school's quality because they expected less.
Jenner sits in the neighborhood once dedicated to the Cabrini-Green public housing projects, and despite the area's gentrification still considers 88 percent of its students to be living in low-income households. Jenner has a "Level 2," or the second-lowest school rating, in CPS' five-level scale, while Ogden just earned a "Level 1+" rating, the highest rating.
Jenner was one of more than 100 CPS schools "under consideration" to be closed by City Hall two years ago, but when nearby Manierre Elementary was in line to be closed, parents and public officials worried about students being forced to cross gang lines to attend Jenner.
"There's a lot of race and class challenges here. I know this for a fact. I'm ashamed of my own scared feelings, I'm ashamed of my friends' scared feelings. I think it's a part of us being human beings," Ogden parent Rebecca Wells said.
"I want us to get through this together. I think it can be an evolution of sorts because it doesn't happen all the time and it doesn't happen organically."
So far, both schools have already gone through the first step in the process to merge schools by the 2016-2017 school year, which includes issuing the draft guidelines, according to Kate Gladson, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation. Any time Chicago Public Schools intends to take a school action (closure, consolidation, reassignment boundary change, phase-out or co-location), draft guidelines focusing on school utilization need to be issued, Gladson said.
The district is required to issue a revised version of the guidelines by the first week of November. Also in early November the district will issue its list of independent hearing officers.
On Dec. 1, the district will announce every proposed school action it plans to take. The announcement doesn't mean the plans are finalized; it only formally outlines proposed actions, Gladson said.
From there, CPS will host two public meetings and one public hearing to get more community feedback on the proposed plan. Then the district will issue a summary of community feedback and potentially approve or deny the action.
"Everything is usually done by early spring," Gladson said.
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