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Waiting for the day of judgment from Mayor Emanuel

The threat to close a quarter of Chicago's public grammar schools has the city in a tizzy.



On February 28, when Mayor Emanuel's school closing show stopped by the Armitage Baptist Church in Logan Square, dozens of parents, teachers, principals, and students turned out to beg officials to "save our schools."

In this instance, three north-side schools—Brentano, Jenner, and Manierre—were on the chopping block. But the same scene has recently played out in venues all over town as everyone looks ahead a few weeks to judgment day, when the mayor will unveil which schools he'll spare.

Must be fun to be the boss.

Look, I don't want to minimize the logistical and budget headaches the mayor faces as he deals with communities whose school-age populations are—for the moment—dwindling. According to the Chicago Public Schools, all three of these schools are at less than half their ideal capacity, and two need significant renovation.

But, c'mon, Mayor Emanuel—there's got to be a calmer, more logical way to do this than threatening to close a quarter of the elementary schools in town and sending thousands of people into a tizzy.

The mayor says that nothing less than the financial stability of CPS rests on his ability to shutter an unspecified number of 129 "underutilized" elementary schools. But I don't think a lot of people in town are convinced. Certainly, many of the parents and teachers at the Armitage Church hearing think the mayor's trying to manipulate the situation to justify closing union schools and replacing them with nonunion charters.

You can't really blame them for their cynicism and paranoia.

The mayor said he was going to apply a rigorous formula to determine which schools were underutilized. But Raise Your Hand, a parents' group, points out that the formula distorts the picture by counting things like special ed classrooms as empty space.

The mayor said there were no secret lists or studies guiding the first round of closing recommendations. Then the Tribune revealed that Jean-Claude Brizard, the previous schools CEO, had drawn up a study last year that explored closing many of the same schools on this year's list.

Meanwhile, officials from the United Neighborhood Organization, one of the largest charter operators in Chicago, quietly work the back rooms of the General Assembly to get legislators to give them roughly $35 million to build new schools. UNO wants to use some of that money to buy land for two new schools in suburban Bedford Park. UNO would then like to get Chicago to annex the land.

Think about this. The state's considering giving millions to UNO to build new charter schools in land annexed from the suburbs, even as Mayor Emanuel, one of the organization's chief political allies, insists there aren't enough children in Chicago to fill the schools we already have.

And you wonder why so few parents and teachers believe what the mayor has to say about school closings.

The speakers at the Armitage hearings didn't hammer at these larger points. Instead, they used their time to make the case for keeping their particular schools open.

Supporters of Brentano, located in Logan Square, noted that their test scores had been improving thanks to a dedicated faculty. They also pointed out that younger families are moving into the community, so there's a very good chance that the demand for classrooms will go up.

Translation: it's not a great idea to close a school you'll probably need in a few years.

Jenner's advocates had a different pitch. They explained that their school remains an anchor for what's left of the Cabrini-Green community, and that the community may be smaller but still exists, whether officials like it or not. "There's been a Jenner School in this community forever," says Dorie Bell, a longtime resident of the area. "I went there. I'm sending my children there."

Moreover, the current Jenner School was built in 2000, so it makes no sense to close it already.

Of the three schools, Manierre seems the most vulnerable. It's in an older building that CPS says would cost about $13 million to renovate and is only at 37 percent of its ideal capacity.

CPS officials say they haven't made any decisions on which of the 129 schools it will close. But my sense from talking to aldermen, teachers, and school officials is that the district is strongly considering closing Manierre and sending its students to Jenner, which is about four blocks to the south, on the other side of Division.

Here's the problem: the schools are situated in rival gang territories. Merging the schools would create a combustible mix, to say the least, as Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. passionately argued at the meeting.

"This gang thing comes down through four generations," says Burnett, who grew up in Cabrini and attended Jenner. "If you put these schools together, it's not going to work."

Well, it might have a better chance of working if the mayor added more cops to police the area. Along with expanding after-school programs to keep the kids busy from dusk to dawn with sports, art, music, and other extracurricular activities.

In short, it would only have a chance of working if the mayor poured more resources into the schools. But the city apparently doesn't have the money.

So instead, CPS is more likely to merge Manierre with Jenner, hiking up the class size in the name of saving money.

As much as I'm tempted to blame our current mayor for the fix, it's part of a pattern that precedes his tenure. In the last decade, since the Chicago Housing Authority began tearing down Cabrini-Green, CPS has been using vacant schools in the area as "hold 'em schools" until "other schools get their money right," as Jenner teacher Tara Stamps puts it.

For instance, Jones College Prep High School was temporarily housed in the old Near North High School until Jones's South Loop campus was remodeled. Near North is currently unused.

The Skinner selective-enrollment grammar school was temporarily housed in the former Sojourner Truth Elementary School until Skinner's new building in the West Loop was completed. Truth is now used by a charter school.

In 2009, CPS closed Schiller School and sent its students to Jenner. Officials then converted the old Schiller building into Skinner North, another selective-enrollment school.

There used to be five public neighborhood grammar schools in the Cabrini area: Byrd, Schiller, Truth, Manierre, and Jenner. Now there are only two, Manierre and Jenner. "And we're both on the closing list," says Bell.

CPS closed Byrd in 2004. It's now rented out to a Catholic school.

As the CHA gets out of the business of housing the poor, it's only a matter of time before CPS gets out of the business of educating their children. It's almost as if that were the plan all along.

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