Key Elementary students, teachers fight to keep school open

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Cleveland Gidney-Clark, a proud eighth grader at Francis Scott Key Elementary School, said his Austin school is “on the move,” and it shouldn’t close at the end of the academic year.

“I have been at Key school since kindergarten,” Gidney-Clark told CPS officials at a Feb. 13 meeting being held as the district considers which schools to shutter.

“I love this school, and I’m not going to let you close my school.”

Key is one of seven schools in Austin that’s on CPS’ recently released list of 129 schools citywide that could close in June.

CPS says Key is 57 percent utilized. It has an enrollment of 306 students, according to CPS enrollment data from the 20th day of the 2012-2013 school year, with an ideal capacity of 540 students.

Key teacher Richard Aszling and other advocates for keeping the school open touted Key’s academic performance during the recent CPS meeting, one of two held in the Austin-North Lawndale Network.

“As a teacher in the classroom and also as a member of our instructional leadership team, I’ve seen this,” he said. “I see it in the data. I see it in the classroom every day.”

The school’s academic performance rating – Level 2 – ranks in the middle, and Key is not on probation.

Key’s ISAT composite score shows 60.3 percent of students met or exceeded standards on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) in 2012, which is down slightly from 62.2 percent in 2011.

About 42.7 percent of students met or exceeded standards in 2010.

Barbara Radner, associate professor and director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, said the ISAT itself changed in 2010 when it stopped testing writing.

“That resulted in some schools’ increasing scores, as they had less to prepare for,” Radner said. “Unfortunately, it also led to the reduction of writing competence.”

Radner said Key’s 2010 dip of 42.7 percent should not have been there, because that was the first year the Illinois State Board of Education dropped the writing test.

And she added, “(Key’s) big change from 2010 to 2011 did not hold for 2012.”

Key teacher Aszling said the school’s enrollment has increased since CPS reported 306 students were enrolled at the school.

“We are now at 320 [students],” Aszling said at the West Side CPS meeting.

That puts Key at about 59 percent utilized. But CPS considers schools effectively used when they have an enrollment of at least 80 percent of its ideal capacity, which is the number of homeroom classrooms multiplied by 30 students.

“We have students coming from other schools saying they’ve heard about the good things that have been happening at Key and that they want to come and learn with us,” Aszling said.

Teachers and the school’s administration are working hard to bring resources to the school, he said.

Neither Key Principal Margo Giannoulis-King nor Assistant Principal Pete Retsos responded to AustinTalks’ requests for comment.

“We’ve got five long-term, sustainable grants that are bringing after-school programs like 21st Century and GEAR UP,” he said. “We are working hard, my colleagues and I, to build independent thinkers and leaders for the 21st Century.”

Nancy Stapleton, director of the federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Center Program at Key, said the program tutors children after school, and provides clubs and activities for Key students.

The U.S. Department of Education’s five-year grant for the program provides Key with almost $100,000 each year to run it, Stapleton said. The program is in its first year, she said.

“If the school closes and we can’t serve these kids, the money goes back to the (federal government),” Stapleton said.

Creola Thomas, a parent of a first grader, said she’s not sure where her daughter will go if Key closes because other surrounding Austin neighborhood schools are also on CPS’ 129-school list.

The other schools include Armstrong, DePriest, Emmet, Lewis, May and McNair.

“My biggest concern would be getting her to school and on time,” Thomas said. “She would have to make new friends and meet the new teachers.”

CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler stressed the 129-school list is not final. The process continues, she said, and the district will continue to hear community members’ concerns.

The district is expected to make final school closing recommendations no later than March 31.

Student safety remains a No. 1 issue among West Side education activists.

Joyce Edwards, a former Local School Council member at Key and an Austin resident, said Key has a parent patrol at the school that helps keep kids safe.

“We don’t need our babies going anywhere else but where they are safe – our schools,” Edwards said. “Two years ago, we had a student who was shot on Chicago Avenue and Central [Avenue]. Now they want our babies to go across Chicago Avenue to get to another school.”

All West Side schools should stay open, Edwards added.

Parent Thomas said she remains optimistic Key will not close.

“I think there is hope,” she said. “I understand money needs to be saved, but (closing schools) isn’t the way.”

Mario Lekovic contributed to this story.

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