Those who don’t want to see Francis Scott Key Elementary School close later this year came up with an alternative solution: move students and teachers to the high school across the street.
Parents, teachers and Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) presented the new plan last Wednesday at the scheduled public hearing in Chicago Public Schools headquarters, 125 N. Clark St. – the last meeting with CPS officials the school will have before the final closing list is released next month.
Based on CPS standards, the school – with 306 students – is only 55 percent utilized. Residents suggested that Key students and staff move to its underutilized neighbor, Frederick A. Douglass High School, 243 N. Waller St.
Douglass has a total of 15 empty classrooms in the building, said Emlyn Ricketts, an attorney and member of Friends of Key. Each of these rooms could hold about 20 students if all 306 Key children moved across the street to the high school, she said.
“Classrooms are often bursting with 35 students and one teacher,” Ricketts said of Key. She has worked with students at the elementary school.
CPS will implement programs to help students safely transition to their new, welcoming schools, said Chandra James, chief of schools for CPS’s Austin-North Lawndale network.
Mainly, the CPS Office of Safety and Security would take steps to make sure students felt safe walking to the new school. That office would also ensure there were enough Safe Passage employees monitoring streets for students’ new commutes, James said.
But Angela Graham, Local School Council president at Key, said she doesn’t fully trust Safe Passage employees. She said she has often seen the employees texting on their phones and not paying full attention to students as they walk to school.
She pointed out a recent abduction that occurred on Lake Street, off of Central Avenue, that no Safe Passage employee caught last month.
Ald. Graham also argued that children would have to make their way through gang lines and walk past a halfway house on Central Avenue. She said residents from this house often walk around at their own leisure, and she’s afraid of students mixing with them.
“There’s mentally ill patients and sex offenders there,” Graham said. “On the other side of the street, drug dealers hang out there.”
Graham said that while she’s happy there’s a halfway house available to turn residents into “productive members of society,” she, too, doesn’t feel safe letting children to walk past the house alone.
She said she has not seen an extended plan for CPS’ Safe Passage program and isn’t sure how long the program will last.
But instead of moving Key to Douglass permanently, Ald. Graham said CPS should rehab Key’s building.
“Leave (students and staff) where they’re at,” said the alderman. “Invest the money needed to turn (Key) in to the physical structure that is needed. Keep them temporarily at Douglass.”
All residents who testified to keep Key open noted the school’s test scores have improved over the years. Key, which was previously a Level 3 school, is currently at “good standing” as a Level 2 school.
One special education teacher could hardly finish her statement as she fought back tears.
Angela Kastanes, who is also a social worker and nurse, argued that Key’s classrooms are packed and the school’s test scores have been steadily improving over the years.
She added that student achievement will be disrupted if students and teachers are separated.
“We are a family. We need to stay together,” Kastanes said. “We deserve your investments. We are worth the time and the money, and we will grow to become a Level 1 school when we’re given the chance.”
The alderman said parents feel completely ignored and don’t think their opinions were considered when CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett proposed to close 54 schools, four of which are in Austin.
“Key is making progress. This feels like a punishment to students and families who attend that school,” Graham said.
The public hearing for Horatio May and Louis Armstrong schools will be held April 25 at the CPS headquarters, 125 N. Clark St.