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Chicago announces plan to close dozens of schools

Officials will close 61 buildings in one of the largest mass school shutdowns in U.S. history, affecting 30,000 students. Parents are not happy.

March 22, 2013|By Bob Secter, Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah and John Chase, Chicago Tribune
  • Students leave classes at Ryerson Elementary School, one of many Chicago schools that will be shut down.
Students leave classes at Ryerson Elementary School, one of many Chicago… (Terrence Antonio James,…)

CHICAGO — After months of suspense and anxiety, Chicago school officials announced this week that they planned to close 61 school buildings, nearly 13% of the total number of schools in the district, in what shapes up to be one of the largest mass school shutdowns in U.S. history.

In addition, six other low-performing schools will get complete staff turnovers, but the facilities will remain open.

"It's like a death in the family. It's that sad," said Irene Robinson, 48, after the announcement Thursday. Robinson said all five of her children attended Anthony Overton Elementary School, which is on the list. Now six of her grandchildren go there.

"Overton is a family school," she said. "These teachers are like aunties and uncles to my grandkids. We all take care of each other. We'll never get that again."

Prodded by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, school officials have argued that a dramatic shakeout of district resources is necessitated by declining enrollment, shifting demographics and a huge, punishing budget deficit on the horizon. "We have resources that are spread much too thin," said Todd Babbitz, the district's chief transformation officer.

But for many parents and children, the announcement means only that they will be displaced from familiar neighborhood schools, and will face much longer walks to class over busy streets that crisscross through competing gang territories.

District officials said the changes would affect 30,000 students.

In the works for months, the final closings list was released as Emanuel was on a family ski vacation in Utah.

By Friday morning, protests against the closures had begun.

Parents demonstrated outside Dumas Elementary School — many upset their children would lose their current teachers and face new safety issues when children of neighboring schools consolidate to Dumas.

Felicia Sudds, parent of three students at Dumas, said there were gang issues between Wadsworth Elementary School and Dumas schools in the city's Woodlawn neighborhood. Many parents worry they may have an even harder time keeping their children safe, she said.

"We know what the reality is for our kids. We know we got to be out here at 2:45 p.m. to keep the other students from fighting with the other students," Sudds said.

"You don't have to move [the kids] to have a traumatic experience," Sudds said.

Alfonso Cozart said he felt "bamboozled" that his three children who attend Dumas would lose their current teachers under the proposed plan.

"We're already going through stuff. Come down here and live like us," Cozart said. "Come down here and see our kids go to school every day. To think and wonder: Are our kids going to make it off the bus to make it home — and safely?"

School officials say that they are facing a $1-billion deficit next year, and that the cutbacks at low-performing and underutilized schools announced Thursday will help save $560 million over the next decade.

At the same time, however, they estimate the cost of upgrading receiving schools and enhanced security at $233 million, making the shutdowns will be an added expense in the short term.

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