Neighborhood pleads Canter’s case at final CPS hearing

By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
Staff Writer

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) held its final hearing for Canter Middle School Wednesday evening. Representatives from CPS made the case for why the school should be closed and community members and local elected officials made the case for why the school should remain open.

Canter Middle School, 4959 S. Blackstone Ave., is on the CPS list of school closings due to underutilization. CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is recommending that Canter’s remaining students be moved to Ray Elementary School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., and Bret Harte Elementary School, 1556 E. 56th St.

Ashley Richardson, portfolio planner for Chicago Public Schools, said underutilized classrooms may be unused or poorly programmed making the use of limited resources less effective.

She said as of the 20th day of attendance in the 2012-2013 school year, Canter had 228 7th and 8th graders.

CPS’s math

CPS has based its plan of underutilization on the following formula, according to Richardson:

The standard utilization enrollment efficiency range is plus or minus 20 percent of the facility’s ideal enrollment for elementary school defined by the number of allotted homerooms multiplied by 30. The number of allotted homerooms is approximately 76 to 77 percent of total classrooms available. As elementary school enrollment increases over-range schools are considered overcrowded and below-range schools are considered underutilized.

Canter has a total of 228 7th and 8th graders. The school has a total of 17 classrooms with an allotted 13 homerooms. According to the CPS formula, the ideal enrollment is 390 and the efficiency range is 312-468, which makes Canter below the efficiency range.
Richardson said that Ray and Harte have enough room to receive Canter students.
Ray has 38.5 classrooms, 29 allotted homerooms and its ideal enrollment is 870. The school’s efficiency range is 696 to 1,044. Ray currently has 676 students enrolled. The projected enrollment number of Ray and Canter students combined is 789, which falls within CPS’s efficiency range.

Harte has 16 classrooms with 12 allotted homerooms. The ideal enrollment number is 360. The efficiency range is 288-432 the school’s current enrollment is 328 students. The projected number of students at Harte and Canter combined is 391, which falls within the efficiency range.
John Price, area chief for the Burnham Park School Network, said should the proposal for the Canter closing be approved, supports will be put in place to help with a smooth transition.

“The CEO believes the proposed school closure will help all students and is prepared to assist students with additional support in the transition,” Price said.

Sweetening the pot

Price said if the proposal is approved by the school board, the following plans would be put in place to help address the academic, safety and social emotional support of students during the transition:

CPS Office of Safety and Security (OSS) is working with the Chicago Police Department, the Department of Family and Supportive Services, local community groups, faith partners and elected officials and other sister agencies to review and update school safety lights, security personnel allocations and school safety technology systems. They will also address specific safety issues brought to them by students and parents who are concerned. OSS will provide safe passage and supports for students and teachers before and after school.

A principal transition coordinator (PTC) has been assigned to help Canter’s principal maintain academic rigor for the school year and to ensure a smooth transition. Harte and Ray administrators will receive comprehensive, student-specific data on all transitioning students to identify individual student needs and be prepared to address those needs.

Principals will receive discretionary funds to provide direct academic support to students.

CPS will help staff members facilitate intervention groups or peace circles to help students work through their concerns about the transition. Restorative practices and peer juries will be put in place to encourage peer-to-peer problem solving and resolutions. Students in need of more individualized intervention will have access to highly structured interventions. CPS will provide resources to implement culture building activities such as staff functions, school visits for families and coffee chats with principals and picnics, as well as field trips so that parents can get to know new schools.

Students currently attending Canter who are assigned to Harte or Ray will receive shuttle bus services. The bus will provide shuttle service from Canter to Harte and Ray and return the students to Canter at the end of the school day. The shuttle bus service will continue until all of the Canter students graduate from Harte or Ray.

Current teachers at Canter who are tenured and receive the two highest teacher ratings of superior or excellent will be able to follow students to their new schools according to the number of students that enroll at Harte and Ray.

Price said he would hold office hours on Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. and on Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Pullman Building, 4655 S. Dearborn Ave., beginning April 23.

Aldermen speak out

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), whose ward includes Ray and Harte, said the community meetings and hearings are a “farce and an absolute sham.”

“You’ve been holding these meetings because legally you have to. Clearly there is no real concern for the children,” Hairston said. “You all created a criteria to meet your needs and close the school and the new boundaries that you have created are to fit your needs — not about educating the children.”

Hairston said that there are existing safety issues that are going to be exacerbated by admitting additional students to Harte and Ray.

“Parents are illegally parked, cars are causing traffic, bringing things to a halt, keeping neighbors from getting in and out of their homes,” Hairston said. “People are in their back yards, kids are throwing trash blocking up lanes on Stony Island and CPS pulled the crossing guards from Ray and Harte — when are they coming back?”

She said kids also congregate on 57th Street where there is two-way traffic and neither CPS nor the University of Chicago, which is the proprietor of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools pre-K-12 grade, wants to take the responsibility of monitoring student activity outside of school.

“This transition plan is moving way too fast,” Hairston said. “You have insulted students, parents and staff by trying to rush this through. Life-altering decisions have been made without their input or knowledge and without the knowledge of communicating with the local officials.”

Hairston said she will continue to stand and fight with the community against the school closing action.

Ald. Will Burns (4th), whose ward includes Canter and Shoesmith, said more time and additional support from the state and federal levels is needed for a successful transition.

“I am greatly concerned by the immediate closing of Canter Middle School,” Burns said. “I believe 7th graders who are attending Canter school should be allowed to graduate from Canter. I believe it’s a very difficult challenge to figure out what school your child should attend in 7th grade then make another decision about what high school your child should attend.”

Burns said Shoesmith, the K through 6 school that has the most students that go on to Canter, needs time to adequately plan for the addition of 7th and 8th grades. He said the community also has to figure out the kinds of services and programming Reavis and Robinson elementary schools need to become more attractive to families that live in the attendance boundary area for Shoesmith.

“We have to figure out how to create high-quality schools for Kenwood, West Kenwood and North Kenwood-Oakland and that’s going to take some time,” Burns said.

Burns said that neither Springfield nor the federal government has done their jobs to properly fund public schools, which is why CPS is forced to close schools, and he looks forward to working with those who are interested in changing the way Illinois funds public schools, which is by using property taxes as a major source of revenue.

“We’re making these decisions as a consequence of a failed system of public school funding,” Burns said. “Until we change that we are going to be right back in this spot year after year after year.”
In what one CPS staff person called one of the most civil school closing hearings held downtown so far, the majority of teachers, parents, students and community members in support of keeping Canter open read from a statement that they collectively prepared for the hearing. Many of them also wore black bands tied around their forearms as a symbol of mourning the possible loss of the school.

Community speaks out

Janak Paranjape, a teacher at Canter, said CPS did not comply with the law for school closings because they did not properly notify Shoesmith Elementary School.

“For the past 40 years, students who have attended Shoesmith Elementary School have matriculated into Canter [formerly known as Louis Wirth] for upper grades,” Paranjape said. “Shoesmith parents do not know where their 6th graders are going next school year.”

Neda Yazdy, Canter parent, said CPS used a flawed formula when determining whether the school was underutilized.

“We should be planning space utilization of our buildings based on the class size we want, not the maximum we can pack in,” Yazdy said. “Actually, if we follow federal law governing special education and counseling services, there are 12 classrooms available.”

She said if the proper number of students, which is 25, are placed in each room, full utilization based on CPS standards would be 300 and Canter would be very close to that target.

Sherrice Johnson, a teacher at Canter, said if CPS would have been willing to engage in community conversations then the neighborhood could have worked with them to increase enrollment at Canter.

“Among us are people who grew up in Hyde Park, teachers who have attended and then taught at public schools, people who have or plan to send multiple generations of their families children to local schools,” Johnson said. “CPS needs to make it known that Canter is a strong and viable neighborhood option and actively recruit families to increase enrollment. There is an active community in Hyde Park who have a vested interest in lifting up neighborhood schools.”

Elizabeth Herring, a Bret Harte parent, said it’s strange to close down the second-highest performing 7th and 8th grade school in the school area.

“Comparing all schools in the 60615 zip code that currently serve 7th an 8th grade, Canter outperforms every school but Murray,” said Herring, who noted comparisons to K through 8 schools Burke, Kozminski and Reavis. “Canter accomplishes all this with the highest percentage of students with disabilities.”

Walter Winsor, math teacher at Canter, said the school has been able to increase the number of students taking algebra.

“Canter has seen increasing enrollment in algebra, with 19 of 25 students in the course passing the exit exam in 2011 and 18 of the 26 passing in 2012. These passing rates are competitive with many well-respected schools,” Windsor said.

This year’s algebra class has 32 students. The community is concerned that algebra will not be offered at the welcoming schools because there won’t be enough students prepared to take the course. They also believe other specialty programs such as art, chess and college tours will no longer be offered.

Canter parent Emon Powell said the middle school environment helped her son excel academically, socially and emotionally.

“I heard a lot of bad things about Canter and didn’t want to send my only son, but I was taught to always see for myself,” Powell said. “If I wouldn’t have, I would have regretted it.”

Powell said the school’s principal is like a sister to her and because of math teachers such as Winsor her son was in advanced math classes in high school and will be going to Morehouse College.

She said the school also hosts an annual 3-on-3 Tournament in honor of her son, who has sickle cell.

Joy Clendenning said one of the safety advantages of Canter is its location between Kenwood High School, Shoesmith and the Blackstone Library, “which allows older siblings to drop off and pick up younger siblings at school.”

“Families choose Canter for many reasons, but one that you will hear again and again is that the neighborhood schools for many of our students are unsafe because the neighborhoods they are located in are unsafe,” Clendenning said. “Located on the South Side and close to several major bus lines and Metra, Canter is close enough for families from all over the South Side to get to but snugly cocooned in a safe neighborhood.”

Next steps

Judge Gil Grossi, who was the independent hearing officer, will prepare and submit a written report to Byrd-Bennett summarizing the pubic comments and documents he received at the hearing. CPS will make a final decision on whether or not Canter should be closed at its board meeting on May 22.

d.phillips@hpherald.com