CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago teachers, students and parents reacted with tears, questions and anger as news trickled out Thursday about which schools the city plans to close as part of a cost-cutting effort that opponents say will disproportionately affect minority children.
The nation's third-largest district was expected to announce later Thursday which of 129 schools identified for possible closure will be shuttered, although the number is expected to fall well short of that total. But as Chicago Public Schools officials began notifying teachers and staff at affected schools Thursday morning, word got out to worried and angry parents.
Sandra Leon said she got a tearful call from her grandchildren's kindergarten teacher, saying their school was on the list to be closed. Her two grown children also attended the West Side school, and Leon couldn't suppress tears as she waited outside the building for her grandchildren.
"It's been so good for our kids," Leon said. "This school is everything."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett say CPS must close schools to help deal with a $1 billion budget shortfall and better allocate its resources to students. They say CPS has more than 500,000 seats for roughly 403,000 students, and that closing half-empty facilities will allow students in low-performing schools to attend better ones.
"For too long children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom because they are in underutilized, under resourced schools," Byrd-Bennett said in a statement late Wednesday.
Chicago is among several major U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit, among others, to use mass school closures to reduce costs and offset declining enrollment. Detroit, for example, has closed more than 130 schools since 2005, including more than 40 in 2010 alone.
The issue has again pitted Mayor Rahm Emanuel against the Chicago Teachers Union, whose 26,000 members went on strike early in the school year, idling students for seven days. But it has also put Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett at odds with parents, civic leaders and lawmakers, who have blasted the pair during highly charged community meetings throughout the city and at a legislative hearing earlier this week.
Danielle Horton, who learned her son's school is among those slated to close, called Byrd-Bennett the mayor's "hatchet man" and accused her and Emanuel of trying to "rob the community to further a political agenda" that includes expanding the use of charter schools.
Many of the 129 schools identified for possible closure are in high-crime areas of Chicago where gang violence helped contribute to a marked increase in the city's homicide rate last year. Critics of the closure plan say it could endanger children who will have to cross from one gang's turf into another just to reach their new schools.
Among the critics is Eular Hatchett, who lives in one of the violence-plagued neighborhoods, North Lawndale. She walks her 13-year-old nephew DaVontay Horace to school to ensure he gets there safely.
"Our parents know about this area," she said. "They don't know about those other areas. If they send him way north or way south, I'm not going to do that. It's too dangerous."
Many teachers and parents expressed anger and frustration at how the news of the school closures trickled out, leaving some to agonize over rumor and conjecture, instead of learning the list of schools in one official announcement.
"In a word, the approach was brutal. It's certainly not deserved by these parents and these kids," said Mary Visconti, the director of the Better Boys Foundation, a youth organization in Lawndale.
At Lafayette Elementary, where 95 percent of its 483 students come from low-income families, teacher Rosemary Maurello said the principal read teachers a letter from the district Thursday morning saying the school is among those it plans to close. The letter said a final decision would be made in May after more community meetings are held and budget plans are reviewed.
But Maurello said letters and information packets were already being sent to parents, and the district's message to teachers included a mention of specific plans to move the Lafayette students to another school about 10 blocks away.
"It sounds like a done deal to me," Maurello said.
Like many teachers, she is worried about where her students will end up. As a tenured teacher, the contract allows her to follow her students to their new school, but she wonders if some of them will opt to go to other schools instead.
The district has plans for community organizations to help students get to their new locations safely, but Maurello wonders how long that will last.
"I truly believe that it's going to be chaos," she said.
The district did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.