The large auditorium in the Austin High School campus was nearly empty during a Chicago Public Schools meeting held April 10 to address public concern for the closure of Emmet and Key Elementary Schools.
About 30 people sat scattered around the auditorium for the Francis Scott Key Elementary School meeting, held from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. That number only grew by a few people at 7:30 p.m. when the Emmet Elementary School meeting started.
“We were boycotting the meeting,” said Lettrice Jamison, president of Emmet’s Local School Council. “After the [Chicago Teachers Union] rally, the mayor came out and said this was a done deal, so we we’re like, ‘OK, they’re going to have to wait on us now.’”
The proposed closure of 53 elementary schools citywide is being discussed at a series of community meetings and public hearings set by CPS and will be voted on by the full school board on May 22. CPS is holding the meetings to get feedback about the closures before the final vote occurs.
But parents believe their desire to keep schools open has been wholly ignored, said Bonita Robinson, a former teacher at Edward K. Ellington Elementary School — where all Key and some Emmet students will go. She thinks this is also a reason why few people came to Wednesday’s meeting.
The meeting was set up similar to the Chicago Board of Education meetings, where speakers can sign up and talk to the board for no more than two minutes each.
For the Key meeting, three people spoke. But only one speaker will be directly affected by the school’s closure.
“I like my teachers right now. There’s going to be different teachers and different students … you don’t know if they’re going to treat you differently,” said Destiny Harris, sixth grader at Key.
Parents and teachers have expressed concern in the past for students’ safety when traveling to Ellington next year, saying they’re afraid of students crossing gang lines.
A former Key teacher, who has not taught at the school since 1997, said he thinks the school has come a long way since he taught there.
“The school was kind of a rough school [in the 70’s]… a lot of students had behavioral problems,” said Amphous Piggee, who taught at Key for 25 years. “But we kept the school together.”
Robinson, the former Ellington teacher, spoke during both the Key and Emmet meetings. She sees all school closures as a racist move by the school board.
She noted that school board CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has said school closures are not racist. But Robinson said the majority of closures are affecting schools in low-income, black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
“I find it extremely troublesome that Barbara Byrd-Bennett or any other board member has not acknowledged the elephant in the room — the widening gap between white and black students,” Robinson said in her remarks during the Emmet meeting.
Robinson said she worries there may not be enough room at Ellington for each student to get personal attention once students shift over there, if closures for both Key and Emmet are approved.
Some students at Emmet will also go to Oscar DePriest Elementary School, 139 N. Parkside, based on where they live. Both DePriest and Ellington are planned to adopt an International Baccalaureate programs and will get new computer and science labs, officials say.
But Robinson does not think these programs will be used, at least at Ellington. She doesn’t think the school has made time in the past for students to use the science labs.
“[The labs] just sit there,” she said.
Students in the past used to learn things in the computer lab, but to her knowledge, they’re now just used to administer standardized tests.
“The labs will be used when visitors are there,” she said, alluding to public officials or school board members.
Robinson said that she’s seen the school put the labs to use when visitors came, but didn’t see much action in the labs outside of that.
No teachers spoke or appeared to be at the meeting, and Robinson said this is most likely because most teachers are afraid to express their opinions in fear of losing their jobs.
Some CPS officials at the Emmet meeting urged people to speak if they had any thoughts on their mind, especially after Robinson was the only person to offer remarks.
But no one else stood up after Robinson, and the meeting room stayed silent until it was called to a close at 8:30 p.m. — an hour earlier than it was originally scheduled to end.
The next community meeting for both schools will be on April 15 at the Austin High School campus auditorium, 231 N. Pine. Key’s meeting will be from 5 to 7 p.m., and Emmet’s will be from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.. Jamison, Emmet’s LSC president, said she will hold a press conference outside the auditorium at 5 p.m. that same day. On April 25, public hearings will be held at the CPS Headquarters downtown, 125 S. Clark St.