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Major School Restructuring Plan In 19th Ward Met With Heated Debate

By Howard Ludwig | September 7, 2016 8:34am | Updated on September 7, 2016 10:15am
 A school restructuring program was unveiled Tuesday night at Kellogg Elementary School in Beverly. The sweeping program would merge the school at  at 9241 S. Leavitt St. with Sutherland Elementary.
A school restructuring program was unveiled Tuesday night at Kellogg Elementary School in Beverly. The sweeping program would merge the school at at 9241 S. Leavitt St. with Sutherland Elementary.
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DNAinfo/Howard A. Ludwig

BEVERLY — Both the gymnasium and the debate at Kate S. Kellogg Elementary School in Beverly were hot Tuesday night as a massive school restructuring plan was unveiled for the 19th Ward.

Parents, teachers and students filled the gym at 9241 S. Leavitt St. and temperatures quickly rose as Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th) detailed a plan to merge Kellogg with Sutherland Elementary School.

Under the proposal, the combined school would operate out of Sutherland's campus at 10015 S. Leavitt St., allowing the Keller Regional Gifted Center in Mount Greenwood to takeover the Kellogg's building in Beverly.

Meanwhile, the Keller campus at 3020 W. 108th St. would be used to help ease overcrowding at Mount Greenwood Elementary School, which is just 3½ blocks away at 10841 S. Homan Ave., O'Shea said.

 Parents of students at Kellogg Elementary School in Beverly had many questions Tuesday night after a plan to merge with nearby Sutherland Elementary School was revealed by Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th).
Parents of students at Kellogg Elementary School in Beverly had many questions Tuesday night after a plan to merge with nearby Sutherland Elementary School was revealed by Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th).
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DNAinfo/Howard A. Ludwig

"We are trying to solve our own problem," said O'Shea, adding that the schools in Mount Greenwood are overcrowded while schools in Beverly are underutilized by those living within the neighborhood boundaries.

"And we are trying to solve a lot of problems with one plan," said State Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago), who helped author the proposal.

The crowd gathered Tuesday was largely unconvinced of the merits of the plan that would essentially close Kellogg — a top-ranked school with 226 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, according to the Chicago Public Schools' website.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks," said Emily Lambert, detailing her reaction upon hearing the news late last week.

"As far as I know, we have always been a strong school," said Lambert, one of four members of Kellogg's Local School Council who called the special meeting to discuss the proposal.

But O'Shea said the changes were more about numbers than school performance. He said just 700 public elementary school students live within the neighborhood boundaries established for Kellogg and Sutherland.

Sutherland has 640 students this year, according to CPS. But a decade ago, the school had more than 800 children, according to Cunningham, who sat on Sutherland's LSC when his children went there.

"We think, in the end, that the short-term pain and short-term inconvenience will be to the community's benefit. We will emerge with better schools," said Cunningham, adding that his wife has also taught at both Sutherland and Kellogg.

Neither Cunningham or O'Shea offered concrete reasons for the declines at the neighborhood schools in Beverly, but said nearby Catholic schools — St. Barnabas and Christ the King — are thriving. They also pointed to a contentious principal swap at Sutherland in 2014 and the departure of the principal at Kellogg this year as a possible cause of instability.

Meanwhile, the Catholic schools in Mount Greenwood are struggling as residents in the western part of the ward are increasingly choosing Mount Greenwood and Cassell, O'Shea said. He specifically pointed to enrollment at Mount Greenwood which had 1,112 students Tuesday compared to 581 students a decade ago.

O'Shea said he's successfully fought for two additions in the last five years at Mount Greenwood Elementary. The total cost of these improvements was $13 million. Meanwhile, eight classrooms and a playground were added in 2014 at Cassell as part of a $3.5 million project, O'Shea said.

He also admitted to considering a $20 million annex to the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences to further alleviate overcrowding at the two campuses. But O'Shea said he scrapped that plan after principals in Mount Greenwood were worried that such a program would poach high-performing students.

He also said it felt unfair to continuously invest in only half of the ward.

Instead, he's opted to shift things around and keeping Keller and its 252 students within the 19th Ward is part of that plan. And the administration at Mount Greenwood Elementary would manage all buildings included in its potentially expanded campus, O'Shea said.

As for Keller, O'Shea said moving the school to Beverly also allows it some room to grow, which might include the addition of a kindergarten program or the expansion of the special education program. He also said most of the Keller students live closer to Kellogg than they do to the campus in Mount Greenwood.

He then pointed to an 2010 effort to move Keller that ultimately failed. He said there's been no threat for the school to leave since the neighborhood rallied to keep it, but he believes a pre-emptive move might keep such ideas from resurfacing.

"I think it is important to have a gifted center in your community," he said.

Meanwhile, a significant portion of the money saved by scrapping the annex at the Ag School would be funneled into improvements at Esmond Elementary School in Morgan Park, O'Shea said.

Esmond, 1865 W. Montvale Ave., has 272 students and hasn't seen a significant investment in years. One of the buildings dates to 1891, making it the fifth-oldest structure in all of CPS. Another building was erected in 1971 and was only designed to last 20 years.

O'Shea has said he'd like to tear down a building at Esmond and reinvest other parts of the campus which serves as a neighborhood gathering place in the often-overlooked eastern edge of his ward.

But the debate on Tuesday night focused more squarely on Kellogg. O'Shea admitted to calling for an audit of the school to help identify where students are coming from and to root out those attending the school illegally by living outside of the city limits.

While the audit is underway, the Options for Knowledge programs at both Sutherland and Kellogg have been suspended. These programs allow students living outside of the neighborhood to apply to attend the schools.

Both Kellogg and Sutherland rely on such students to keep enrollment figures steady. These same enrollment numbers also determine funding for the schools, and several Kellogg parents argued that shutting down the program sends the message that the restructuring plan will move forward regardless of the outcome of the public debate.

O'Shea promised to look into the process of the audit to see if the restriction might be lifted. He also vowed to have audits conducted at other schools — including those in Mount Greenwood — to see if students from outside of the neighborhood are contributing to the overcrowding there.

He added that students now enrolled at Kellogg and Sutherland through the Options for Knowledge program would graduate with their class even if the plan were to be approved. As a result, it would take roughly 2-3 years to phase in any merger.

O'Shea insisted the plan is not a done deal. CPS would have to approve any such moves and would likely only do so if there was support within the community. Even with strong neighborhood approval, the measure wouldn't be decided until the end of the year at the earliest, O'Shea said.

Meanwhile, he promised to host community meetings at schools impacted by the shake-up. Based on the feedback the plan will either move forward or die, said O'Shea, acknowledging that the first meeting went "bad."

Several parents in the gym also pointed to the racial impact of the decision to merge Kellogg and Sutherland. Kellogg's student population is 83.6 percent black, and Sutherland is 58.8 percent black, according to CPS.

But both O'Shea and Cunningham said the combined school would still be diverse, though that diversity would more closely mirror what is seen within the neighborhood boundaries of both schools.

"This has been a successfully racially integrated community going on five decades," O'Shea said.

George Levy, 36, of suburban St. Charles graduated from Kellogg in 1992 and returned to the school to show support for his alma mater Tuesday. He grew up in Brainerd and attended the school through the Options for Knowledge program.

"I'm the stereotypical kid from across the tracks," Levy said.

He tested into Kellogg in kindergarten and always good grades. But he often fought with other students and credited his elementary school teachers for seeing his potential and changing his bad behavior. He went on to graduate from Whitney Young Magnet High School and receive a pair of college degrees, including one from the University of Cincinnati.

He believes the restructuring plan largely boils down to a debate on the merits of the Options for Knowledge program. And he felt obligated to attend the meeting as a proud product of the program at Kellogg.

"The impact here is so great that people really don't understand," Levy said.

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