MORGAN PARK — Administrators at Esmond Elementary School in Morgan Park had the sympathy of the audience Monday night at the Beverly Arts Center, but those opposed to a major school restructuring plan remained undeterred.
Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th) and state Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-Chicago) again laid out their proposal to shift student populations and resources at public elementary schools within the 19th Ward at a packed forum in the 400-seat auditorium at 2407 W. 111th St. in Morgan Park.
"The greatest need in our community is at Esmond Elementary," O'Shea said of the school at 1865 W. Montvale Ave. "We need to make hard decisions."
O'Shea began the meeting by detailing his plan to merge Sutherland Elementary School and Kate S. Kellogg Elementary School, located just one mile apart in Beverly. He presented figures — largely disputed by the audience — saying that both schools have seen declining enrollment of students living within the neighborhood boundaries.
Under the proposal, the building vacated by Kellogg at 9241 S. Leavitt St. would become the new home of Keller Regional Gifted Center. This magnet school would move from 10841 S. Homan Ave. in Mount Greenwood and make way for a dual campus at nearby Mount Greenwood Elementary School.
Esmond Principal Angela Rene Tucker was given the floor after O'Shea spelled out his proposal and spoke about the gains at her school in her 11-year tenure. But she said water consistently leaks into the building, and buckets lined the hallways on the first day of school.
Esmond's custodian spoke about a fire that recently broke out when an aging vent fan malfunctioned. He said Esmond's facilities are beyond simple repairs, and a major investment is needed to overhaul the buildings — the oldest of which dates to 1891.
Speakers throughout the evening spoke in support of Esmond, but several also said the school was used as a smokescreen for the most controversial part of the plan, which involves the merger of Kellogg and Sutherland.
Kellogg is a high-ranked school with 226 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Its population is 83 percent black, according to CPS. Meanwhile, Sutherland has the same high rank and has 609 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Its population is 61 percent black, according to CPS.
Several critics of the plan said Monday that closing Kellogg would eliminate one of the top-performing black schools in Chicago. It would then be replaced by Keller, which has a student population that is 34 percent black and 30 percent white, CPS data shows.
Others in the crowd also hinted at the racial composition of Mount Greenwood Elementary School, which has 1,106 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Its student population is 83 percent white, according to CPS.
O'Shea vehemently denied race as a motivator for his proposal, saying it would have been politically easier for him to do nothing. He also pointed to his background as a social worker before his career in politics.
"If you don't like this proposal, I can understand that," he said, adding more forums will be held to gather feedback before any decisions are made.
Shanya Gray's son is in first grade at Kellogg. The Beverly mom said she doesn't think O'Shea's plan is intentionally racist, but she believes the ramifications of his plan are clearly painted along color lines — sacrificing black students for white students.
"You probably need to go back to the drawing board," Gray said to a round of applause.
She later said that Esmond should be fixed regardless of the outcome of the proposal and echoed others in the crowd saying she was suspicious that the future of a school which has been largely ignored for decades is now carefully woven into the fabric of a massive shakeup.
Gray also voiced concern over O'Shea and Cunningham having previously pointed to an increase in the volume of students at both Kellogg and Sutherland attending the schools from outside the neighborhood via the Options for Knowledge program.
The combined school would concentrate public school students living within the boundaries of both schools on Sutherland's campus at 10015 S. Leavitt St. So the number of seats available for those interested in attending the school from outside the neighborhood would likely decrease.
"For me, to say [Kellogg] is not a true neighborhood school is a way to say it is too black," Gray said.
The issue of race was brought up several times throughout the evening, but several Sutherland parents also used the forum to reiterate their opposition, saying the proposal would overcrowd their school for the sake of alleviating the same problem in Mount Greenwood.
Laurie Cleary is a member of the local school council at Sutherland. She is an 18-year resident of Beverly and has two students at Sutherland and one who graduated from the school. Cleary first commended O'Shea on his role as alderman.
But she then strongly condemned O'Shea's plan. Cleary said she thinks it would bring back the days of classes being held in the hallways at Sutherland and art, music and technology classes going from room to room on a cart.
"Keep looking for other options to solve these problems. Keep looking," Cleary said.
O'Shea and Cunningham said Mount Greenwood Elementary School's student population continues to increase, and he admitted to considering a $20 million annex to the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in Mount Greenwood to help alleviate overcrowding with a junior high feeder program.
But O'Shea said he's already directed $13 million in improvements to Mount Greenwood Elementary and another $3.5 million in additions to George F. Cassell Fine Arts School also in Mount Greenwood.
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