Lewis Elementary undergoing building improvements, should be removed from possible school-closure list, some West Side residents say

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Leslie Lewis Elementary School is undergoing building renovations, causing some advocates to question why Chicago Public Schools would consider closing it when it’s supposed to receive millions of dollars in improvements.

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

The other Austin schools are Armstrong, DePriest, Emmet, Key, May and McNair.

Some have questioned how CPS arrived at the space utilization figures for each school, including Lewis. The group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education did its own analysis of underused schools and found CPS’ formula “works to both exaggerate underutilization and underreport overcrowding.”

On the 20th day of this school year, Lewis had about 569 students enrolled, though CPS says the school could be educating 1,050 students, making it 54 percent utilized.

Not all of Lewis is being used, because it’s currently under construction, Cheryl Welbel, a fifth-grade teacher at Lewis, said at CPS’ Feb. 13 community meeting.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Welbel said. “How can we put students in there if it’s under construction?”

In May 2012, CPS announced Austin-area schools were slated to receive a little more than $12 million as part of its $110 million and five-year capital improvement plan to address immediate health and safety concerns for its public schools, as reported by AustinTalks.

Lewis is slated to receive the most money — about $8.4 million -out of the Austin schools to repair its deteriorating roof and to replace the school’s structural system. A CPS spokeswoman confirmed the repairs are underway.

Dwayne Truss, vice chairman of the Austin Community Action Council, said he wonders why CPS would want to shut down a school it’s already pumped money into for improvements.

The district says it’s facing a $1 billion budget deficit by this summer and needs to shut down some underutilized schools.

CPS has until March 31 to reveal the final schools it plans to close.

But closing Lewis and other schools that were built recently or have undergone improvements would “blow a hole” through CPS’ rationale of shuttering neighborhood schools to save money, Truss said.

“Why spend all the money and then close them down?” Truss said.

CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said the district considers the repairs at Lewis an emergency that can’t wait or be ignored.

But Truss said recent or slated capital improvements should help knock an under-enrolled school off of CPS’ list.

High schools and high-performing schools are off the table, district officials have said.

And the list was narrowed after CPS announced it would not close schools with more than 600 students, schools that recently experienced a school action or are in the process of adding grades, among other criteria.

Ziegler stressed the process is far from over, and there are “many other things” CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett will take into consideration before making final recommendations.

She said CPS encourages people to continue to express their concerns and needs to the district.

But Barbara Radner, associate professor and director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, said she’s not sure recent building improvements would knock a school off the list.

If anything, the recent renovations might make the school more attractive to a potential buyer, such as a charter school, she added.

Neither Lewis Principal Kathy Jenkins nor Assistant Principal Elwanda Butler responded to AustinTalks’ multiple requests for interviews.

Fifth-grade teacher Welbel urged CPS officials at the recent meeting to work with the school and not close it.

“We’re battling. We’re making it. We’re progressing,” Welbel said. “The last thing we want to do is tell our kids start at the bottom again. That’s wrong.”

Lewis has the lowest of three academic performance ratings – Level 3 – and is on probation.

About 48.1 percent of students met or exceeded state standards on the ISAT in 2012, which is down slightly from 55.7 percent of students in 2011. About 48 percent of students met or exceeded standards in 2010.

Reading, science and math scores had a slight bump from 2010 to 2011 but decreased in 2012, CPS data show.

“Don’t stop us,” Welbel said at the Feb. 13 meeting. “All of us teachers at Leslie Lewis, we’re putting our blood, sweat and tears into these kids. I love my kids like they’re my own sons and daughters, and this is not the message I’m going to send them.”

The school offers a variety of extracurricular programs and after-school activities, which make Lewis a valuable asset to the community, school advocates said at the meeting.

The school offers band, choir and mural painting for students. It also has mentoring courses for girls and boys, and a handful of sport and fitness opportunities, such as softball, golf, wrestling and track.

The Black Star Project and the Black Ensemble Theater also have partnerships with the school, Welbel said.

Lewis also has a journalism club, poetry workshops, and a Real Men Read and Young Authors program.

It offers half-day preschool and full-day kindergarten.

“We have 30 students waiting to get into our pre-k,” Welbel said.

Wanda Hopkins, a community Local School Council representative at Lewis, said she’s worried if the school closes, it could result in more neighborhood violence, which has been a major concern among education advocates in Austin.

“I say to the [Chicago] Board of Education, ‘How dare you?’” Hopkins said at the meeting. “With the amount of children that’s dying in the city of Chicago, how dare you? Closing schools and consolidating schools kills children.”

Mario Lekovic contributed to this story.

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