A student at Lafayette Elementary School, one of the Chicago schools slated to be closed. (Photo/Getty Images )

Chicago’s decision to close 54 schools elicits strong reactions

The city of Chicago is embroiled in a struggle over the decision to propose closing 54 public schools serving 30,000 children in kindergarten through 8th grade. The Chicago Public Schools argue these schools have been losing students due to population changes in the city.  Facing a $1 billion dollar budget deficit, city school officials announced they would use the savings to improve the remaining schools.  Libraries in every building, air conditioners in every classroom, more STEM and arts programs as well as more funding to secure safe routes to get to school are part of what the district pledges to do with the savings.

Though the city has held community meetings and hearings in all the affected neighborhoods, families who are opposed to the closings are still not convinced it is for the best.

“I don’t think the improvements are going to happen,” said a mother whose children attend Ana Roque de Duprey Elementary School in Humboldt Park, an area which has long been home to many Hispanic families. Duprey Elementary is already a school within another school, Von Humboldt, and they both will be folded into Diego Elementary.  The mother says Duprey has been a stable, well-run school with provisions for English language learners and special education classes. “My children have been there since kindergarten; it’s a good school, and it is also convenient to where we live,” she says.

Eight of the schools slated to be closed and incorporated into other schools have over 20 percent Latino enrollment.  While Chicago’s African American population declined 17 percent in the last decade, according to Census figures, the Latino population increased by 3 percent.

Sara Echevarría is a former teacher who now works at the Chicago Teachers Union, which has come out against the closings.  “I don’t find the justification,” she says of the Duprey school closing. “This school has people who are vested in the community, who understand the culture in the community; a lot of these kids are special ed kids who need the support and the smaller class sizes,” Echevarría adds.

In a detailed report explaining the proposed closings, however, officials state that Duprey Elementary’s enrollment has declined by 75 percent over the last ten years, and the school is less than a third full. Currently, 403,000 students are enrolled in the Chicago public schools, though existing capacity is for 511,000 students.

“It doesn’t make sense to prop up schools that are largely empty or struggling to adequately educate kids,” said an editorial called “Difficult Day, New Opportunity, in the city’s largest newspaper, the Chicago Tribune.  “That’s a waste of a lot of money that could be redirected to the classroom,” the editorial stated.

Two public policy analysts from the Latino Policy Forum, while not taking sides on the city’s decision, say this period between the announcement of the proposed closings and the Board of Education vote is a time to make sure different questions are addressed.  Executive Director Sylvia Puente says one key point is that 1500 preschool program slots – 15 percent of whom are occupied by Latino students – are in school buildings which are slated to be closed.  “There is a severe shortage of Latinos in our early childhood education programs, so how these slots will or will not be redistributed should be studied,” Puente says.

In one of the schools slated to be closed – Lafayette Elementary School – 170 children out of 470 have been diagnosed with autism, says Cristina Pacione-Zayas, Latino Policy Forum’s Education Director.  Pacione-Zayas says issues of student to teacher ratios, as well as questions of transition, are big issues for autistic children and their families. “To what extent has CPS considered these factors in these facilities is a question that has to be studied,” she says.

The city plans to hold more hearings before a final vote on the closings is taken.

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