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Commission on School Utilization hears from community

When CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced the nine-member commission to study school utilization, many assumed the point was to have them hear the community out and offer up concrete recommendations on what schools should be closed.

But the commission’s role might be much more abstract.

On Monday night, at the first commission hearing, chairman Frank Clark said the group will not necessarily produce a list of schools to be closed. Instead, it may only suggest a methodology or a guide that Byrd-Bennett should use when deciding which schools to shut down. 

Yet many of the 70-plus people who turned out to Rev. James Meeks’ cavernous House of Hope church on Monday seemed to think that the commission would have some say-so on which school gets closed. In several cases, they argued for a specific school to be spared.

Edwina Jackson, the first speaker, asked the commission to think about how shuttering a school affects a community. She lives right across the street from Wacker Elementary School, which has a student population of about 239.

“Do you know what it is to have a mammoth empty school right in front of your house?” she said. “Wacker is one of the better schools. I don’t want it jeopardized.”

Clark told her that "good" schools won't be closed. However, Clark had not even been given a list of the schools CPS judges to be under-utilized, so he had no context to speak on any particular school's situation. 

Mary Ann Lawson-Mack said she walks her grand-daughter to and from Cullen Elementary everyday. She wants it to stay open because it is close.

“There are gangs out there,” she said. “Please take safety into mind.”

Putting kids in danger

Others also emphasized the safety risk of closing schools. Green Principal Tyrone Dowdell told the commission that he can not see how they will close a large number of schools without putting students in danger. “I can’t think of one school that you can close and the children not be forced to cross gang lines,” he said. “Children who don’t feel safe don’t do well.”

Another point made by several people addressing the commission is that classes are overcrowded, even in under-utilized schools. Denise Little, who manages the chief of schools, said that classes should not be above the limits set out in the Chicago Teachers Union contract.

When many in the audience shook their heads and indicated that classes sometimes hold more than 35 children, Little said she will take the issue back to Byrd-Bennett.

Adam Anderson, officer of portfolio, planning and strategy, said that CPS officials set the utilization rate by figuring 30 students in each class. The guidelines are 28 students in kindergarten thru second grade and 30 students in third thru eighth grade, he said. The average is 30. 

CPS’ utilization formula has long been under fire from closing opponents. Nona Burney told commissioners that 30 students per class is too many. “There is a flaw in your utilization rate,” she said.

Also, on Monday, the parent advocacy organization Raise Your Hand issued a report challenging the way CPS calculates school utilization. Parent Jeanne Marie Olson used a different benchmark – one that set 25 students per classroom as ideal, and 30 per classroom as overcrowded – and found that the number of half-empty elementary schools dropped from 92, to 37. And by her reckoning, a whopping 147 elementary schools would be considered overcrowded.

Districtwide, rather than 19 percent of elementary seats being empty, Olson asserts, just 2.7 percent are.

3 comments

Mike Klonsky wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

Small Schools

Another good reason for not closing a school like Wacker, is that its 239 student population is the perfect size for an elementary school. "Underutilization" is a misleading term to use when describing schools. Smaller neighborhood schools are actually more cost affective and safer than larger ones.

Rod Estvan wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

Mike is correct but Wacker is a small school

Mike is right when he says "Smaller neighborhood schools are actually more cost affective and safer than larger ones." But Wacker, the example that Mike uses has a theoretical ideal capacity according to CPS of only 270, so 240 or so students is well within the CPS existing guidelines. The issue becomes much more complex for a massive school like CVCA High School which has according to CPS a theoretical ideal capacity of 3,984 students but enrolled only about 1,000 students in the 2011-2012 school year.

Now I do not agree with the CPS utilization formula for CVCA because the school has a good number of rooms with significantly disabled students who are legally required to be in classrooms with only 10 students but are still being measured against a standard of 30 students. But even with that this school is massively large for its current enrollment with wings of the building almost abandoned. We can clearly see that the shop facilities at the school are not being appropriately utilized because of the failure of CPS to keep its vocational programs relevant and modern. So the under utilization of CVCA is both real and created by neglect combined with changes in the US economy that drive vocational education.

Rod Estvan

Anonymous wrote 1 year 48 weeks ago

I just would like to know

I just would like to know what numbers drive the school to be called underutilized. Will they be considering space needed for resources of the school like special eductaion, ESL classes, Rti classes, testing space for teachers, related services which are leaglly mandated services. I've seen teachers use all the store rooms, hallways to take care of students' needs. I think they should look at the population of the school, services those students need to succeed and then decide if space is being underutilized and not go just by numbers.

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