School closing opponents turn out to meeting

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CPS’ new point man on school actions faced an angry crowd of about 60 people at the first community hearing on proposed guidelines for school closings. Not only were many audience members opposed to school closings, they were also skeptical that Oliver Sicat, the chief portfolio officer, would have the power to make changes based on their feedback.

Angela Surney, whose children attend Marconi, which was on the school closings list last year but was spared, compared Sicat to a “puppet” and a “sheep led to slaughter.”

Other audience members heckled Sicat and shouted questions at him. The meeting ended with loud chants of “Save Our Schools,” drowning out any last minute remarks from Sicat.

It was the first of what could be two contentious meetings on closings; CPS has another meeting slated for Wednesday night. While the hearing was called to vet the district’s guidelines, most participants talked about the lack of resources spent on schools that are now on the target list for closings. It was also clear how little trust those in the audience had in CPS, which has spent the last decade closing schools and opening new ones.

It’s not clear how many schools could be targeted for closing this year, but the number will likely be higher than the five to 10 that have closed each year recently.

Opponents of the closings are already planning their next steps, which include a forum on Dec. 3 at King College Prep and a vigil the night before the December school board meeting.

Letting schools fail?

Under the proposed guidelines considered at the meeting, CPS could close schools that have been on probation for at least two consecutive years, unless they have a composite ISAT score or 5-year graduation rate that is above average for their geographic area. In a new addition to the guidlines, the district will also take schools off the list if they score in the top three-quarters on the district’s performance policy “Growth” rating, Sicat said.

“We are going to talk to our [network] chiefs, talk with everyone in CPS who has worked with these schools to get a better understanding of the local context,” Sicat said, and noted that schools receiving displaced students would get extra resources.

But this promise rang hollow for some in the crowd, who accused CPS of letting schools fail until it was time to close them.

“Let’s say you’re my landlord and you’re renting to me. The building’s falling down and year after year you say, ‘I’m going to close this building,’ but you never make improvements,” Surney said. “You’ve been to Marconi three times… [but] funding and other things are not even coming to the school. You have never gone back to the schools to reconcile the problem of you putting it on the list in the  first place.”

Dvorak Elementary parent volunteer Angela Gordon made a similar point. “When we asked for tutoring programs, we have 600 students but we got 44 slots,” she said. “I can only do so much. If it was left to me, I’d take them home and tutor them.”

Originally, Sicat was just going to take questions on notecards, but after protests from the audience, the meeting format was changed to allow people to speak at a microphone. Many took several turns.

Save Our Schools, an organized group of community members, comprised about half of the audience and rode a bus to the Westinghouse High School meeting from Julian High School on the South Side. Though opposed to closings, many also voiced anger at schools’ performance and asked questions like: Why do only one in seven African-American students score at or above a 20 on the ACT? What do you plan to do about the 92 percent of 11th-graders who are not ready for college? 

There were other questions as well, more specific to the topic at hand: How will children be kept safe if they have to travel to different neighborhoods? “This would be a citywide effort,” Sicat said, involving oother city agencies–the Chicago Transit Authority, the Chicago Housing Authority and the Chicago Police Department.

Chicago Teachers Union representatives at the meeting were also tough on Sicat.

“Are you even capable of making this ultimate decision of which schools get closed, and if not, really, should you be the one standing here with us tonight?” asked Jackson Potter, the union’s staff coordinator.

Union organizer Matthew Luskin said officials should have notified all students and parents whose schools could be eligible for closing.

“You certainly can figure out which schools are eligible for school actions. Did a letter go home with those students? Why weren’t they invited? Why aren’t you encouraging those voices to be a part of this?” Luskin asked.