The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
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Tensions rife at school closing hearings
Despite a snowstorm, hundreds turned out to Friday's round of school closing hearings, and tensions were high as supporters brought on yellow school buses clashed with parents, students and community activists.
A fight between Crane students and some of the bused-in school closing supporters broke out at the hearing on the proposed phase-out of the West Side high school, according to WBEZ/Chicago Public Media. At the hearing on the planned closing of Price Elementary School, one mother left crying and screaming, “I’m done."
And at the hearing on Dyett High School in Washington Park, speakers wound up talking to each other rather than to the officials on hand to listen to their input.
Next week, more hearings on 10 proposals--to close schools and to allow new schools to share buildings with existing schools--will be held downtown at CPS headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. The Board of Education will vote on the proposals at their February meeting.
None of Friday's hearings were held at the schools that will be affected by the actions. At least four of the hearings were partly filled by people who came on buses. Of those bused in, less than a handful spoke and some of them seemed not sure why they were there.
Two busloads of people from K.L.E.O Family Life Center, an organization that is connected to a local church, attended the hearing on the proposal to close Dyett, which is in Washington Park.
Perlander Swinney, deacon at K.L.E.O., said that failing schools like Dyett are the reason why so many young people are on the street.
“Just shut it down…” he said. “CPS knows best.”
But Swinney’s statement was immediately followed by a group of Dyett supporters. One student said she worried about the gang friction that would be created by mixing Dyett students with those from Phillips. Next year's Dyett freshmen will be assigned to Phillips High School should the phase-out be approved.
That angered a Dyett closing supporter from K.L.E.O. who got up and shouted “Too much, too little, too late.”
Then, Bettie Dancy, a grandmother who is against Dyett’s closing, gave an impassioned speech that spoke to the distrust that families have in CPS.
“What have they done?” she said. “They have taken home their six-figure salary and done what they needed to do for their children, and then they try to tell us what to do with our children.”
Dancy left with Kenwood-Oakland Community Activist Jitu Brown. Brown, who serves on Dyett’s local school council, told the people from K.L.E.O.: “Don’t let them use you.”
At the first hearings on Jan. 6, some bused-in people admitted to being paid. At Friday's hearings, people were more discreet about whether they had a financial incentive to attend. However, one Robeson student who attended the Dyett hearing and came on the K.L.E.O. bus said she came “because I don't have a job and needed money.”
According to CPS Office of Procurement, K.L.E.O. got $36,000 from CPS this year and, for the past two years, the organization got $5,000. K.L.E.O. is paid to provide student mentoring, according to a board report.
FIGHT BREAKS OUT AT CRANE
Accusations that people were being given financial incentives to support the closings were also rampant at the hearing on the phase-out of Crane. About 400 people attended the hearing, held at Malcolm X Community College, according to Brit’s account.
Crane supporters –which included students, alums, teachers, coaches, parents, and 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti—wore the school’s red, white and blue colors and filled most of the large auditorium, which felt like a Crane pep rally for much of the night.
Nearly two hours after the hearing began, the other side was heard from. Cory Thomas said he represents “Community in Action.” He began by commending Crane for strides made, but the tenor of his speech quickly changed.
“You all are not anywhere close to where you all need to be. We all need to call a spade a spade. You had 10 years—10 years of failure!”
Boos erupted from the Crane supporters, many of whom stood up. Thomas told students, “All the teachers are about the mighty dollar, not about the student, so you all are being used to keep their job, and they’re still failing us as black people! Education is by any means!!”
The speech triggered a skirmish between Crane students and those supporting the school’s phase-out. Teachers and security hurried to stop the brawl, and the hearing was suspended for several minutes while those involved were ejected from the room. Chicago police arrived at Malcolm X after the skirmish continued outside the auditorium.
Evenutally, between 30 and 40 supporters of a Crane phase-out also left the auditorium to jeers of “Rent-a-protesters, your bus is here!” Several speakers over the course of the evening, including Fioretti, alluded to protesters from outside the neighborhood being paid to come out to support school closings.
PRICE SET TO CLOSE
At the hearing on Price Elementary School in Bronzeville, Maurice Jones came with members of the dance team Final Phaze to say that he supported the closure. He also spoke in favor of turning around schools in the neighborhood. CPS has proposed turning around Fuller and Woodson, which are also in the neighborhood.
Several parents shouted at Jones and CPS officials. One was Rev. Krista Alston, a member of Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. Her 11-year-old son, she said, was moved from Robinson to Price after Robinson was turned into a preschool-3rd grade school.
“It's not fair, it's not right, and if we have to go all the way to the Supreme Court we are going to keep Price school open,” she told officials. “I am a taxpayer and I purchased my home, and I expect my child to be able to go to a public school in my own community.”
--WBEZ-Chicago Public Media reporters Linda Lutton and LaCreshia Birts contributed to this report.