Emmet parents, teachers make last plea to CPS officials

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Parents and teachers made one final effort last Wednesday to urge Chicago Public School officials not to close Austin’s Robert Emmet Elementary School.

Concerned individuals came out to a public meeting held at CPS Headquarters, 125 N. Clark St., to voice their opinions on Emmet’s proposed closure, one of four being considered in Austin.

Emmet students would move to either Oscar DePriest Elementary School, 139 S. Parkside Ave., or Ellington Elementary School, 243 N. Parkside Ave., next year if the Chicago Board of Education approves the closure at its May 22 meeting.

The school, located at 5500 W. Madison St., was deemed underutilized by CPS. Space utilization was the key factor in determining the 54 school closings this year – believed to be the single largest number of closures in any one year in the U.S.

Emmet, a pre-K to 8th grade school, is 66 percent full with 458 students. CPS guidelines say that a building is efficiently used if it’s anywhere from 80 to 120 percent full. Guidelines state 30 students per classroom would be an ideal, efficient use of the school.

But different schools have different needs, said Dwayne Truss, vice chair of the Austin Community Action Council and a Raise Your Hand board member.

DePriest serves some of the city’s autistic students, who he said cannot be part of a 30-person classroom once Emmet students move in because students with special needs require extra, individual attention from the instructor.

“There’s a maximum you’re supposed to have in that classroom when you have a building that serves a special needs cluster,” Truss said.

Generally speaking, Truss said he doesn’t think 30 students in a classroom translates into a good learning experience for anyone.

“There’s no academic research or merit to say 30 students in a classroom is efficient. It’s like a fox making up the rules when they’re guarding the hen house,” Truss said.

A presentation shared before speakers took the floor April 17 showed that both higher-performing DePriest and Ellington schools would be inside their ideal student enrollment ranges once Emmet students moved in.

CPS guidelines for school actions promise that students in closing schools will have the option to attend higher-performing schools. DePriest and Ellington are Level 2 and Level 1 schools (the best ranking), while Emmet is a Level 3 school.

But Ackisha Williams, parent of an Emmet student, argued at Wednesday’s public hearing and at a separate press conference that the school’s Level 3 standing was based on a test that Emmet no longer uses, the Scantron test.

“(CPS officials) told us they were just using the test to evaluate us teachers. They went back and used it against us,” she said.

And even though the school’s rating is at Level 3, test scores have generally been improving over the years, despite a recent drop, said Lettrice Jamison, the school’s Local School Council president. She rattled off the percentage of students who met or exceeded ISAT composite scores: 71.2 percent in 2010; 73.8 percent in 2011; 70.4 percent in 2012.

Jamison said CPS should invest in Emmet instead of pushing students out. She added that students and teachers are working hard to improve academically.

But the new, welcoming schools will provide programs that Emmet does not currently offer.

Both DePriest and Ellington will offer an International Baccalaureate curriculum, a program that teaches students with a global perspective. Both schools will also offer a science lab and an upgraded computer lab.

But Bonita Robinson, a former Ellington teacher, says she’s not sure these new amenities will actually be used. She said at the meeting that in her experience, the science lab at Ellington was only used “when visitors came.”

Some parents and teachers asked why new programs and facilities couldn’t just come to the existing schools.

“If our schools are being treated equally and being funded fairly and all our children are given equitable access to education, why aren’t all of these programs available to them now?” asked Tammie Vinson, a teacher at Emmet. “Usually, we have to do something special to apply for them and be offered access to that.”

Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) urged CPS to invest in Emmet and give the school resources to improve on its own rather than moving it to a school where she thinks there’s a risk for overcrowding.

But beyond the popularly voiced issues – such as students crossing gang lines or disrupting student-teacher rapport – some community advocates said they’re afraid students will get lost in the transition.

CPS’ Office of Safety and Security will offer assistance to make sure students are traveling safely to and from their new schools – a main concern among parents and teachers – said Chandra James, chief of schools for the Austin-North Lawndale network.

However, some community advocates don’t think this will prevent students from skipping school.

A Chicago Tribune investigative report on truancy within CPS found that about 32,000 students miss more than a month of school a year in the city, a report that both Robinson and Brandon Johnson, an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, cited during their public testimonies.

Both fear this missed time will only increase if children are too scared to cross gang lines to get to school.

“There are students who are missing from previous school closings that no one can find,” Robinson said. “We’re losing these young men and some young ladies.”

The public hearing for Horatio May and Louis Armstrong schools will be held April 25 at the CPS headquarters, 125 N. Clark St.

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