Controversial Chicago School Closings Outrage Parents, Teachers

Mar 21, 2013
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. A school occupies an important place in a community. It becomes an integral part of many families' lives. So it's no surprise there's controversy - even outrage - today in Chicago. That's where students, parents and teachers at about 50 public schools are finding out their schools are on the list to be closed this summer.

As NPR's David Schaper reports, leaders in the nation's third-largest school system say they need to consolidate underutilized schools to save money.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's not just the far from spring-like weather that makes the Florence B. Price Public School look cold. The doors and windows here are all locked up tight, and it's empty, as Price is one of a few Chicago public schools closed last year.

GAVIN AUSTIN: I liked it because I could walk to school.

SCHAPER: Twelve-year-old Gavin Austin was in fifth grade here at Price last year.

GAVIN: The teachers were good. They taught us well. I liked that I had a lot of friends. The other kids were nice, friendly.

SCHAPER: Now, while Gavin is home-schooled by his mom, many of those friends are at another school some 22 blocks away, taking buses to get there. And community activist Jitu Brown says some of the former Price students have been bullied, threatened and worse, at their new school.

JITU BROWN: And we've had three major incidents where young people have been jumped on. The last instance, the young man had to be hospitalized.

SCHAPER: Brown says now it appears this area of Chicago South Side will lose a few more elementary schools. And he worries not just about increased violence, as kids cross new gang turf to get to and from school, but about how this may disrupt their educational development. But Chicago public school officials say they need to close underutilized schools, to provide students with better educational opportunities. Over the last decade or so, close to 200,000 residents have left the city, primarily from predominately African-American neighborhoods on the city's west and south sides. And that's left scores of Chicago schools about half full.

BARBARA BYRD-BENNETT: These schools which have been underutilized for so long, and the underutilization has led to - really, an under-resource of these schools.

SCHAPER: That's Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who says the system is facing a billion-dollar budget shortfall next year. She told WBEZ, in Chicago, yesterday that many of the school buildings are in poor physical condition. So Byrd-Bennett says the students displaced by school closings will be offered something better.

BYRD-BENNETT: And so we've been very thoughtful all along, to ensure that we can provide the kinds of access to opportunity that the children, particularly in certain areas of our community; and that's the south and the west side, that have just been left like deserts - barren.

SCHAPER: Timothy Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, says from an economic standpoint, Chicago and other big, urban school districts have no other choice but to close some school buildings. But he says the results from past school closings in Chicago - and other cities - are mixed. And he says the process of closing so many schools at once is extremely difficult.

TIMOTHY KNOWLES: There are really, no winners. This is emotional and enormously disruptive for children, for teachers and for parents.

SCHAPER: The Chicago Board of education will take a final vote on the 50 or so schools slated for closing, in May.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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