By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
Hyde Park parents, teachers, students and community members gathered this week at two Chicago Public Schools (CPS) community meetings to urge the district to keep Canter Middle School open.
On March 21, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced that several schools across the city, including Canter, 4959 S. Blackstone Ave., would be closed next school year due, in most part, to underutilization and balancing the CPS budget. More than 100 community members showed up to the meeting, which was held Monday evening at Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., to protest the proposed school closing.
At Monday’s meeting, Colleen Conlan, principal at Canter, said the school is currently working with a coordinator appointed by CPS to create a transition plan should the board decide to close the school and move the students to Ray Elementary School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., and Bret Harte Elementary School, 1556 E. 56th St. She said there was mention that the Canter building would be used as a parent university center but she has not heard anything else about the future plans for the building.
Community members spoke at the meeting to a three-person CPS advisory panel. They said that they were sticking with CPS’s first plan that Hyde Park needs a middle school.
“Ten years ago, the board of education paid experts and administrators to come in and tell us about the importance of having a middle school,” said Camille Hamilton-Doyle, co-chairwoman of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference Schools Committee and Canter local school council (LSC) member. “They sold us on middle school and we went for it — now you’re saying we don’t need it?”
Lena Fritz, Shoesmith LSC member, said the hearings are an insult to the community.
“Community members have been working hard to lift up our schools,” Fritz said. “This is a hearing without exchange or dialogue about questions we have. We should be the ones listening to your pitch not the other way around.”
Hannah Hayes, parent of a Ray Elementary and Canter alum, said, for its purpose, Canter is not underutilized.
“When my son was in 6th grade at Ray we found out the school was losing 7th and 8th grade, we were told middle school would be better,” Hayes said. “Four CEOs later we’re being told K through 8 is better. I wish the board would use its own rhetoric. Canter is right-sized.”
Patrick Papczun, a new teacher at Canter who was an architect before coming to the school, said Canter did not get a fair examination.
“[Canter] is a great place that is doing so many things right but no one has come to see what we do, their opinion of us is based on what they hear,” Papczun said. “There is now someone coming out three times a week to make sure we don’t steal stuff and we still teach. How insulting. No one was coming before.”
Teachers, administrators and parents said overlooking the special needs of middle school students during the young adolescent phase could be detrimental to learning.
“Middle school was a right of passage,” said Chantell Allen, a Ray Elementary School parent who teaches at a different middle school. “Exposing kids to a 7th and 8th [grade] school culture and then sending them back to the babies is not right.”
Bessie Tsitsopoules, a school social worker at Canter, said she is concerned about the academic and social emotional state of the students who may be moved out of Canter.
“When you take school relationships away from them grades go down because of instability,” Tsitsopoules said. “Without relationships, education doesn’t work.”
Walter Winsor, math teacher and 8th grade homeroom teacher, said many K-8 schools ask teachers to teach several different subjects whether they are strong in them or not.
“The Canter staff is stronger than it has ever been — they are experts in their fields,” Winsor said. “When I applied to other schools they wanted me to teach math and language arts. I know nothing about language arts. I am a math teacher. That is what [Canter students] are going to have at other schools.”
Canter students also spoke to the CPS panelists on behalf of keeping their schools open.
Nelson Williams, a 7th grader at Canter, said he is a straight A student who is doing well in school because Canter is a middle school and it should be “kept alive.”
“At first I wasn’t excited about going to Canter until they said it was only a 7th and 8th grade school,” Williams said. “I liked the building, the lunches and teachers … my best friend is there. If Canter closes I won’t be able to take algebra.”
Conlan said academic supports —especially for math — are extremely important at the middle school level.
“Algebra is the gatekeeper class in high school,” Conlan said after the meeting. “Most students fail and if you fail algebra in high school you will most likely go on to fail other math courses. If you pass in middle school you tend to do better in high school.”
Reagan Allen, an 8th grader at Canter, said he received the support he needed to become a better student at Canter.
“When I fist came to Canter I was a lost soul. It turned my education around when my teachers started to believe in me,” Allen said. “If you close Canter so many other souls won’t be able to be helped.”
Samara Spencer, an 8th grader at Canter, said she receives the care and attention she needs at Canter.
“The teachers are loving, caring [and] helpful with troubles,” Spencer said. “They even take time after school to make sure we understand what we are learning so we can pass the class.”
Dianna Richardson, an 8th grader at Canter, said Canter is like a second home to her.
“My sister and aunt also went there. It was like home,” Richardson said. “The teachers are like a second set of parents. They push me to do better. Canter is a community that sticks together; it is a place to learn and feel loved.”
Pamella Williams, parent of children at Canter and Bret Harte, said a change in schools could mean a change in citizen dynamics in the community.
Williams said her children and many of the other families in the neighborhood volunteer at the school, take advantage of free family programs and lectures at the University of Chicago and join local athletic teams because they are all nearby.
Community member Dylan Cole said she decided to come to the meeting because she’s tired of hearing about all the changes CPS is putting neighborhood schools through.
“What you do with public schools has an effect on my house,” Cole said. “I’ve been hearing all this stuff on the news and researching for myself. I pay five figures in taxes on my home. Stop playing with theories and go back to full education.”
Canter parent Donna Hart said the closing of Canter might mean her family will have to leave Chicago.
“I moved to Chicago two years ago from Minnesota,” Hart said. “If Canter closes I have no other option but to uproot and go back to Minnesota. I don’t want my daughter on the frontline of transition issues.”
Leslie Travis, a librarian at Ray who lives near Canter, said she is concerned about how an unused building would affect the community.
“The school does a good job patrolling outside before and after school,” Travis said. “I am concerned about an empty building near Kenwood High School and Blackstone Library. We need to keep the space alive and vibrant so the community can send their kids to school here.”
Community member Angela Paranjape said Mayor Rahm Emanuel is misusing his authority over the public education system.
“Where are Shoesmith 7th and 8th graders going to go, how many teaching positions will be available, how do I know [Canter students] are going to take algebra when only two kids are moved to Bret Harte or Ray when we have a full class here at Canter?” Paranjape said. “Emanuel is not using his public responsibility to make it what [University of Chicago] Lab School is. He is squashing down public school kids so his kids have no competition.”
Community member Victoria Long said none of the public schools in Chicago should be closing.
“This whole process is flawed. There is no dialogue but none of us have the power to really change things,” Long said. “I hope Rahm knows that the voters of this city are going to remember this.”
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said she was never consulted when CPS recommended that Canter be closed and the children be sent to schools in her ward. She said she just met Thursday with Burnham Park area school chief John Price and Byrd-Bennett Thursday and was not informed that the Ray principal and vice principal would be escorted out of the school, for reasons Price will not comment on.
“I was elected to represent people who live in the 5th ward,” Hairston said. “We will not allow you to disrespect us. We will speak with our voice and our votes.”
After thunderous applause the crowd began to chant and urge Ald. Will Burns (4th) to speak but he declined. About 20 to 30 minutes later the chants for Burns to speak arose again but he had already left the meeting.
A few parents offered alternative solutions to closing Canter.
Gordon Mayer, Ray parent and Ray LSC chairman, said he’d prefer that Canter not be closed but if it must be then CPS should phase out 7th and 8th grades at Canter while phasing in 7th and 8th grades at Ray.
Ray parent Laura Shaeffer said there might be a way that CPS’s new plans for Canter can coexist with the existing plan.
“Keep Canter open and the parent university could be open in the evenings,” Shaeffer said. “All underutilized schools could be more creative in how space is used and share with community organizations.”
The support for Canter moved Conlan to tears.
“I appreciate the community parents and feeder schools for their support,” Conlan said. “Middle school is so important socially and emotionally at this age. They need special attention for different issues.”
Supporters filed back in to Kenwood on Friday for a second meeting where Hairston once again spoke out and Burns broke his silence.
“I will be and continue to be at every meeting … with my people behind me,” said Hairston, who was incensed by the fact that the school board planned to move Canter students to schools in her ward and change the leadership at Ray Elementary School without notifying her. “The people in intergovernmental affairs at CPS need to be fired, and that money should go to Canter Middle School.”
Burns, who has been reluctant to speak during these hearings, was chided by chants from the community and urged make a comment.
“We are living in a crisis of austerity, but that crisis does not come from the city of Chicago,” Burns said, adding that the state and federal government are to blame for the city’s mass school closings. “If CPS is going to close Canter, they need to phase it out.”
The panel will take notes from the hearings back to Byrd-Bennett and the board will vote on whether Canter should be closed at their May 22 meeting.
The next CPS community meeting to discuss the proposed closing of Canter will take place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday, April 12 at Kenwood High School. A final public hearing will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 17 at CPS Central Office, 125 S. Clark St.