When CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced the nine-member commission to study school utilization, many assumed the point was to have them hear the community out and offer up concrete recommendations on what schools should be closed.

But the commission’s role might be much more abstract.

On Monday night, at the first commission hearing, chairman Frank Clark said the group will not necessarily produce a list of schools to be closed. Instead, it may only suggest a methodology or a guide that Byrd-Bennett should use when deciding which schools to shut down. 

Yet many of the 70-plus people who turned out to Rev. James Meeks’ cavernous House of Hope church on Monday seemed to think that the commission would have some say-so on which school gets closed. In several cases, they argued for a specific school to be spared.

Edwina Jackson, the first speaker, asked the commission to think about how shuttering a school affects a community. She lives right across the street from Wacker Elementary School, which has a student population of about 239.

“Do you know what it is to have a mammoth empty school right in front of your house?” she said. “Wacker is one of the better schools. I don’t want it jeopardized.”

Clark told her that “good” schools won’t be closed. However, Clark had not even been given a list of the schools CPS judges to be under-utilized, so he had no context to speak on any particular school’s situation. 

Mary Ann Lawson-Mack said she walks her grand-daughter to and from Cullen Elementary everyday. She wants it to stay open because it is close.

“There are gangs out there,” she said. “Please take safety into mind.”

Putting kids in danger

Others also emphasized the safety risk of closing schools. Green Principal Tyrone Dowdell told the commission that he can not see how they will close a large number of schools without putting students in danger. “I can’t think of one school that you can close and the children not be forced to cross gang lines,” he said. “Children who don’t feel safe don’t do well.”

Another point made by several people addressing the commission is that classes are overcrowded, even in under-utilized schools. Denise Little, who manages the chief of schools, said that classes should not be above the limits set out in the Chicago Teachers Union contract.

When many in the audience shook their heads and indicated that classes sometimes hold more than 35 children, Little said she will take the issue back to Byrd-Bennett.

Adam Anderson, officer of portfolio, planning and strategy, said that CPS officials set the utilization rate by figuring 30 students in each class. The guidelines are 28 students in kindergarten thru second grade and 30 students in third thru eighth grade, he said. The average is 30. 

CPS’ utilization formula has long been under fire from closing opponents. Nona Burney told commissioners that 30 students per class is too many. “There is a flaw in your utilization rate,” she said.

Also, on Monday, the parent advocacy organization Raise Your Hand issued a report challenging the way CPS calculates school utilization. Parent Jeanne Marie Olson used a different benchmark – one that set 25 students per classroom as ideal, and 30 per classroom as overcrowded – and found that the number of half-empty elementary schools dropped from 92, to 37. And by her reckoning, a whopping 147 elementary schools would be considered overcrowded.

Districtwide, rather than 19 percent of elementary seats being empty, Olson asserts, just 2.7 percent are.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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