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Mayor Emanuel's crowded-classroom approach to fixing schools

How the school "consolidation" plan could make teaching and learning even harder.

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As you may have heard, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently jetted in from his Utah ski vacation to tell the city—particularly south- and west-siders—that he'd done them a big favor by closing 54 of their schools.

That meant that 30,000 children would be moved into new schools. But to hear the mayor tell it, more money would be available for things like air-conditioning, libraries, and computers when the Chicago Public Schools didn't have to spend so much heating all those unneeded buildings.

It's an interesting approach to public education—helping low-income children by turning their undercrowded classrooms into overcrowded ones.

In fact, to help you think about it, I'd like to introduce you to the good folks at Dever Elementary School, at 3436 N. Osceola in the Dunning neighborhood on the far-northwest side. Because they can tell you a thing or two about overcrowded schools.

For starters, though, I should note that despite it being packed to the gills, Dever parents and students love their school, which may explain why it's packed to the gills. It's also one of the city's higher-scoring neighborhood schools, with a student body about 60 percent low-income and an almost even split of whites and Hispanics.

"The teachers are awesome, the administration is awesome, and the kids are great," says Kerry Murphy, a parent with two children at Dever. "This is not about any of them."

That said …

The school is supposed to house about 600 kids, according to CPS. But enrollment is about 830 and climbing.

Just about every available space has been turned into a classroom. When special education teachers pull kids out of class to give them assistance, they work with them in the hallway because they don't have any rooms to use.

"You walk down the hallways and you see kids sitting on the floor with their teachers," says Tilly Tremmel, another parent. "It's really hard to concentrate and really easy for them to get distracted."

Dever does have a lab with 37 computers. But many of them are broken and the bandwidth is so limited that it takes forever to reach the Internet.

Speaking of mayoral decrees, Dever is using its longer school day—the extra 30 minutes Mayor Emanuel ordered to be added last year—for Intervention. That's when students get enrichment in whatever subjects they need help with.

But since every classroom has just one teacher to work with at least 30 students for that half hour, the kids can count on about a minute of their teacher's time. Better talk fast, everybody.

Dever's lucky enough to have an art teacher and a music teacher. But since they don't have their own classrooms, the teachers pack their instruments or supplies on a cart and schlep from one classroom to the other.

"We call it art on a cart," says Murphy.

At lunchtime the students don't file politely to the cafeteria to eat, because there is no cafeteria. Instead, the kids eat at their desks, after which they run off to recess.

When special education teachers pull kids out of class to give them assistance, they work with them in the hallway because they don't have any rooms to use.

Ah, yes—recess. Mayor Emanuel made a big deal about ensuring every school gets recess. And I applaud him for that.

OK, now that I'm done clapping: Yo, Mr. Mayor! It doesn't make much sense to order the schools to do something if they don't have anywhere to do it.

On nice days, Dever students get to go outside and play on the asphalt playground. The school used to have a lawn, but the city put a library on it. The city put a library on it because former mayor Richard Daley promised Dunning residents he'd give them a neighborhood library, but apparently there wasn't enough money to buy the land for it. Since the mayor oversees both the schools and the libraries, Daley was able to cut a deal with himself.

And when the deal was done, Mayor Daley and William Banks, the alderman at the time, promised they'd extend Dever into the parking lot, if only to add a cafeteria and some extra classrooms. But Banks and Daley are long gone. So much for that promise.

See, I don't blame everything on Mayor Emanuel.

"The thing is, we can't really use the library," says one teacher, "even though it's right there on what used to be our lawn."

That's because CPS treats walking the few steps to the library as a full-fledged field trip. And that means getting parent permission slips and lining up chaperones. "That library might as well be downtown," says the teacher.

The bottom line is that Dever Elementary School no longer has a lawn to use for recess on nice days.

On inclement days—like all of winter and much of spring—students are sent to the gym, which doubles as the auditorium, and told to sit and not make any noise. As fun as that sounds.

"There are classes in the gym, so the kids have to be quiet," says Murphy. "My kids hate recess. It's like a living hell."

If this sort of thing happens elsewhere—and it probably will—it raises the possibility of an inspiring campaign slogan: "Reelect Mayor Rahm, the man who made recess a living hell!"

But that's still not everything Dever is dealing with. The nurse's office is a converted broom closet. And another room is shared by—get ready now—two social workers, one counselor, one ESL administrator, the assistant principal, and a copy machine.

"It's the only copy machine teachers have access to so there's a steady stream of teachers coming in," says Tremmel. "Not much privacy for parent conferences. Everybody can hear everything. But there's nowhere else to put anybody because all the other rooms are being used for something else."

Well, they could put something in the basement bomb shelter that's near the boiler room, which the teachers use as their lounge.

Just joking! I need to make that clear before Mayor Emanuel has the bomb shelter turned into an art room.

In February, when CPS held a northwest-side hearing on overcrowding, Dever parents and teachers brought their school to the attention of CPS central office officials.

"They suggested we turn the library into a classroom," says Murphy.

Several weeks after that meeting, Murphy, like every parent in the system, got a cheery letter from schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett promising better days ahead for children in "consolidated" schools.

"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 wrote.

Among the goodies "consolidated schools" will receive is a library.

For Dever's parents, the irony was tough to take. "CPS sends out a letter saying they're going to put a library in every 'consolidated' school, while they're telling us to turn our library into a classroom," says Murphy. "It just doesn't make any sense."

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