By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
Public schools in Hyde Park usually make it through the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) school closing announcements unscathed, but this year the neighborhood did not escape. As the district continued its search for ways to make cuts that would lead to a balanced budget, a wider range of schools faced school actions.
This school year, school utilization joined academic probation as a factor for closing considerations by CPS. At a school closing hearing in April, CPS officials explained their school utilization formula stating that 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. Based on this formula, CPS came up with a list of about 330 underutilized schools that included Reavis Elementary School, 834 E. 50th St.; Kozminski, 936 E. 54th St.; Canter Middle School, 4959 S. Blackstone Ave., and Ray Elementary School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave. By February, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had shortened the list to 129, removing Ray from the list, It was shortened again removing Reavis and Kozminski. In March, Byrd-Bennett announced her final list of 54 schools she recommended for closing and Canter remained on the list.
CPS expressed its desire to return all schools to the K-8th grade model. The Hyde Park community, which was convinced by CPS about 10 years ago to bring a middle school into its neighborhood to help ease by overcrowding, expressed their belief in the effectiveness of the middle school model. Parents, teachers, students, members of the community and elected officials showed up to each of the CPS meetings and hearings to express the need for Canter in the neighborhood.
In February, CPS held a hearing in what was then called the Burnham Park Area Network, which includes schools in Bronzeville, Hyde Park and Woodlawn. Members of a coalition appointed by Byrd-Bennett listened to testimonies and took notes so that they could make recommendations to the CPS CEO.
Joy Clendenning, a parent who spoke on behalf of Canter and its benefit of being a small school for 7th and 8th grade students, said she found the entire process very discouraging.
“I think the commission consists of really well-intentioned, nice people but the process is flawed,” Clendenning said, “It would have been a better approach to create teams and have them visit each school. What’s with having people pleading ‘Please don’t close my school?’”
In April. CPS held two community meetings specifically for Canter at Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave. A large number of Hyde Park parents, teachers, students and community members attended the meeting and spoke in favor of keeping Canter open.
Hannah Hayes, parent of a graduate from Ray Elementary and Canter, said that 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.”
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 had just met with Burnham Park area school chief John Price and Byrd-Bennett and was not informed that the Ray Principal Tatia Beckwith and Vice Principal Jeff Alstadt would be escorted out of the school, for reasons Price would 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.”
A final public hearing was held April 17 at CPS Central Office, 125 S. Clark St.
Based on CPS’s school utilization formula Canter had a total of 228 7th and 8th graders. The school had a total of 17 classrooms with an allotted 13 homerooms, which, if multiplied by 30 yielded an ideal enrollment of 390. The efficiency range was 312-468, which made the middle school below the efficiency range.
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said the community meetings and hearings were 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.”
Ald. Will Burns (4th) said that neither Springfield nor the federal government has done its job to properly fund public schools, which is why CPS is forced to close schools and he looked forward to working with those who are interested in changing the way Illinois funds public schools, 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.”
After the hearings, CPS voted to phase out Canter, allowing the 7th graders to be promoted to 8th grade and close the school once they’ve graduated.
Both Ray and Bret Harte started the 2013-2014 school year with 7th grade and are trying to make space to phase in 8th grade the next school year.
The issue of school closings and the desire to keep Canter open resulted in the forming of the parent group Hyde Park Community Area Residents Empowering Schools (HPCARES) and the mobilization of the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Council (HP-K CC) Schools Committee.
Parents, community members, teachers and administrators from schools in Hyde Park gathered together at Kozminski in February to discuss how they keep their neighborhood schools open.
Those who attended the meeting were concerned about CPS’s dependence on numbers to make school decisions and were interested in knowing more about the school utilization measures being used by CPS to determine which schools they would close.
The group agreed to form the group HPCARES so that they would have a large group and a larger presence when speaking with CPS about keeping schools open in Hyde Park.
“The number doesn’t tell how your school is being used, and the number is being used to determine if your school is open next year,” said Maria Fitzsimmons, community organizer at Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), an organization that helps to create education advocacy groups such as HPCARES.
The group met again in March to discuss ways they could work together to advocate for their schools by reaching out to elected officials, CPS officials and representatives from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office.
Upon hearing CPS’s decision to close Canter the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference (HP-K CC) sprang into action. On March 21, HP-K CC sent a resolution to elected officials in Hyde Park, including state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25), state Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-13) and Ald. Will Burns (4th), seeking a deferral of CPS school closures.
Anita Hollins, president of HP-K CC, said the community wants to be a part of an equitable plan for the schools in the neighborhood and wants Byrd-Bennett to see the school for herself.
“Barbara Byrd-Bennett had a massive set of hearings,” Hollins said. “It’s one thing to have public meetings. It’s another to really get to see for yourself what’s going on at each school.”
HP-K CC did not rest on the laurels of helping Canter remain open for one more year. In October, HP-K CC hosted a “Future of Canter Meeting,” and invited parents and community members who were interested in keeping the middle school open.
Camille Hamilton-Doyle, co-chairwoman of the HP-K CC Schools Committee, said the committee believes that the community can continue to petition to keep the school open for good.
“We got them to keep Canter open for an additional year, we can do it again,” Hamilton-Doyle said.
Hamilton and the committee’s other co-chair, Nancy Baum, attended the October CPS Board meeting to speak out about keeping Canter open. Board President David Vitale advised the chairwomen to form a Community Action Council (CAC) and said it may help the community keep Canter open.
A CPS CAC representative was a no-show at the at the HP-K CC Schools Committee CAC informational meeting in December, so the neighborhood’s new area network chief Harrison Peters shared his past experiences on working with CACs.
“CACs are a very powerful voice because the community holds us accountable to promises made,” said Peters, who served as area chief on the Far South Side for about two years before becoming the network chief of area 9. “Some (CACs) have decided that some schools should be closed and they protested for others to stay open. Through their work some remained open and others CPS decided to close.”
A select group of community members made an appointment to meet with Phillip Hampton, chief of the CPS Department of Family and Community Engagement, to get the Hyde Park CAC up and running.
Colleen Conlan, principal at Canter, said she’s encouraged by all the support the school is receiving from the community. In the midst of uncertainty about the future of Canter, she said she and her staff have been working hard to make sure that its 8th grade class has the best experience possible. The school is currently seeking donations to send its final 8th grade class to Washington, D.C. in the spring.
“This is our last year so we want to go out with a bang,” Conlan said. “We’re [President Barack Obama’s] neighborhood school so we wanted our students to learn more about where he is now and about the country’s history.”