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Chicago Board Votes to Close 49 Elementary Schools

Security intervenes as Shannon Bennett, an activist with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization which opposes school closures, attempts to speak after commandeering the podium microphone at a packed meeting of the Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

Chicago education officials today approved the largest-scale, single-year closure of public schools of any major school system in the nation, approving the shuttering of 49 elementary schools that are located mostly on the city's impoverished south and west sides.

Despite months of protests, a citywide outcry against the closures, and two federal lawsuits, the board—all appointees of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—voted for the closures after hearing last-minute pleas from parents, teachers, students, and clergy to reject the recommendations from the school system to shut down the schools and shift students to other campuses.

City and district officials say the closings must happen in order to deal with plummeting enrollment and to make progress on improving the struggling school system. Other cities are grappling with similar challenges. Philadelphia, the District of Columbia, and Detroit are also moving this year to shut down large numbers of underenrolled schools to address budget woes and lagging student achievement.

Just hours before the board's final vote, school system officials backed off plans to shutter four of the 53 elementary schools originally slated by the district for closure. The board agreed with those recommendations to keep the four schools open.

During today's lengthy public hearing that grew contentious at times, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of Chicago's schools, acknowledged the strong emotions people have expressed and that the "choices are not easy." But rejecting the school closures, she said, would keep "tens of thousands of children trapped in underutilized and under-resourced schools." She also said the blame for the school system's chronic struggles to better educate students "rests with the system."

She said the city school system has lost 145,000 students since 2000.

The CEO also said she had personally attended 103 meetings with various stakeholders about school closures and that the district has worked hard to be directly in touch with families who will be impacted by the closures and new school assignments to discuss transition plans, particularly for special education students.

Several speakers, many of them parents, disputed the data that Chicago schools officials used in making some of its closure decisions, at times citing state test scores to make their case that the schools slated for closure are higher-performing than the schools that will serve as "welcoming" campuses for the displaced students. Security and safety issues have also been a paramount concern for parents and community activists who worry about routes to "welcoming" schools that would require their children to walk through gang territory. Chicago school officials and city police say they have developed plans to ensure the safety of children.

Several opponents of the closures have also decried the disproportionate impact on black students. Roughly 88 percent of the students in the schools to be closed are African-American, said Joshua Radinsky, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a member of the city's Local School Council board, who urged the board to postpone taking action on the closures for another year. Roughly 43 percent of the district's enrollment is African-American, according to federal schools data.

This decision, he told the board members, is the "single most significant policy decision for Chicago's African-American children."

Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers' Union—which last week filed two federal lawsuits seeking to stop the closures—issued a statement after the vote saying the closures are a "scorched earth policy." She also said district data shows that the "underutilization crisis has been manufactured. Their own evidence also shows the school district will not garner any significant savings from closing these schools."

Photo: Security intervenes as Shannon Bennett, an activist with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization which opposes school closures, attempts to speak after commandeering the podium microphone at a packed meeting of the Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

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