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Chicago Parents Prepare for New Reality After School Closures

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Chicago parent organizers who this week lost their plea to keep 49 public elementary schools open, primarily on the city's impoverished south and west sides, say will continue to press their concerns even as they prepare for the transition and what they fear will be more closure announcements.

We interviewed several parents in the aftermath of the Chicago Public School board's decision on May 22 to shutter a record number of schools in the fall, despite a protracted outcry at a series of hearings to keep the schools open. The parents' voices combined with those of teachers, community members, and students opposing the move.

Some parents are talking already about boycotting the first day of school, says Natasha Dunn, vice president of the Black Star Community PTA, which is an outgrowth of the Black Star Project, a Chicago-based organization that works to improve the quality of life in Black and Latino communities by eliminating the racial academic-achievement gap. "They [the CPS school board] threw the gauntlet down real quick and simple. We'll see."

The school board, appointed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, took the stand that the schools being closed are underperforming and underutilized.

Dunn believes the solution will result in "overutilization and overcrowding." She says one priority will be monitoring the promises made by CPS. "We're trying to make sure all the things CPS says it's going to do—like make it easy [in the transition] and be on alert for safety—that they actually do them," said Dunn.

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, which has been involved in protesting the closings, expects a push to change the school board from mayor-appointed to one elected by the citizens. "We have a fairly strong base of angry people here in Chicago right now," she said. "We do think the legislature is a place to go [for change.] So many of our elected legislators have felt dismissed in these discussions. They're feeling the same way that a lot of parents, students, and teachers are feeling—which is that the decisions that are being made are being made against the best interests of the community and children."

Next Steps for Parents

For families immediately affected by the closures, decisions will need to be made about how to prepare their children for a new school year in a new school, farther from home.

Michelle Harris Hunt, a mother of five with four children who attend Horatio May Elementary Community Academy—which is scheduled for closure—says the board's action will require that she either transport her children to their new school, or she will have to pay for them to take a city bus in the next school year. This will be a hardship since the new school is a mile and a half away, and no free, city-provided transportation is available for students.

"My personal concern is for the parents. If we could form a strong parent group and get parents more involved, then some changes will be made. Additional funds and grants will be found," she said. "If parents get together for these kids, and don't just talk, but form strong parent groups, we will make an impact."

Woestehoff says there is reason to be concerned for the sense of safety and security for the children who have to move and for their educational continuity. "Losing Track," a Catalyst Chicago report of what happened last year when four elementary schools closed, said that 11 percent of the children "fell through the cracks"—with no official knowledge of where they went.

"A comprehensive study on the impact of closings found that most students displaced by shut-downs between 2001 and 2006 landed in new schools that were not strong enough to help them raise their academic achievement. The study was done by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research," wrote Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago, which provides independent reporting on education.

At Leif Ericson Scholastic Academy, Sonya Collins whose daughter is a 3rd-grader there, said she "felt like she won the lottery" upon learning that her school was one of only four that escaped closure. "We have parents who stood together. We fought. We had data, and we proved why we should keep our school open," she said.

Collins said she and other parents at her school will continue to support the majority who lost their bid to keep their schools open. She offered advice for parents in schools threatened next year: "Go to Springfield [the state capital.] Get your data to prove you're right."

Dunn of the Black Star PTA, says: "We want to know what services, what plans do you have in place so that these schools are going to be safe, and able to adequately educate our kids? We're upset about this, but now that it's happened, what are we going to do?"

Dunn, who says she fights for all Chicago's children, pulled her elementary-school-aged twins from CPS last year so they could focus on education first at home, then enrolled them in a private school to which she pays tuition.

"We were organized; we spoke up. But at the end of the day, they closed doors at a historic rate. It's not over. Next year, they'll be back to close more, and we have to be ready," says Dunn. "We have to think about our good strategies."

See our full coverage of parent empowerment issues.

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