Bridgeport Alliance questions CPS school utilization formula
March 1, 2013

By Patrick Butler

The Bridgeport Alliance did not plan it that way, but its members started their Feb. 6 protest against three possible local public school closings at First Trinity Lutheran Church, 643 W. 31st St., and ended up at Fuller Park about 15 blocks away.

The 130 irate parents and teachers met to map strategy to block the rumored closings of three grade schools: Armour, 959 W. 33rd St.; McClellan, 3527 S. Wallace St.; and Graham, 4436 S. Union Ave. They quickly packed up and moved, however, after learning the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was holding a Pershing Network town meeting for Bridgeport, Chinatown, and Canaryville residents at the Fuller Park field house, 331 W. 45th St. Pershing Network is a CPS organization that supports principals and schools in implementing school improvement plans.

“We realized we needed to be there at Fuller Park more than at our own meeting,” said Jennie Biggs, a member of the Bridgeport Alliance and the Raise Your Hand education reform coalition. Other organizations that sponsored the original meeting were Parents for Teachers and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL).

Briggs is the mother of three children at the Mark Sheridan Math and Science Academy, 533 W. 27th St., which has an “efficient” rating and is not being considered for closing.

“We did get to be heard,” said Biggs, a veteran suburban teacher who questioned what she described as CPS’s “flawed” formula for determining whether a school is “underutilized.”

Subsequent to the Feb. 6 meetings on Feb. 13, the CPS issued a new list of schools CPS management hopes to close, and Graham and McClellan remained on it.

Data questioned

“Raise Your Hand analyzed the data and deconstructed the formula” CPS uses for deciding a school is over- or underused, Biggs told the meeting.

“We found that overcrowded schools are underreported and under-utilized schools are over-reported. A school can be labeled as ‘efficient’ with 36 students in every homeroom. On the flipside, a school can be labeled ‘under-utilized’ with 23 students in every homeroom.”

Biggs added that the formula allows only 23% of a school’s classrooms to be used for “ancillary” (non-homeroom) classes, which is not enough to accommodate activities such as special education, music, art, technology, and the library.

“The flawed formula does not allow our schools to offer a well rounded education,” she said. After actually walking through schools, Raise Your Hand members found “the reality is different from what shows up on CPS spread sheets,” Biggs said. She noted Armour officially has 29 classrooms but in reality has only 22 because the school uses six rooms for an Americans with Disabilities Act project and reserves another classroom for an additional program.

What happens to Bridgeport’s public schools could have unintended consequences for the whole community, Biggs cautioned.

“I’m sure there could be some arguments made for closing some schools I might agree with, but I personally don’t believe in closing schools,” she said. “I believe in investing in what we have. People aren’t going to move into neighborhoods without good schools.”

First Trinity’s Rev. Tom Gaulke was more blunt. It is not a question which Bridgeport schools are going to close, he told CPS officials.

‘We will not let you’

“We will not let you close any of our schools,” he asserted. “We are not here to beg from you. Rather we’re here to tell you you will not close down any of our neighborhood schools without a fight.”

He added that his group did not want to discuss this issue with any CPS “facilitators,” but with Superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett herself.

“We want to speak directly to real decision makers so we know our tax-paying voices are actually being heard,” Rev. Gaulke said. He explained that, just last year, the Illinois legislature gave Sears and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange tax breaks worth nearly $300 million while cutting $200 million from education.

“And now Wal-Mart has the audacity to tell us that we can’t afford to keep all our neighborhood schools open,” Rev. Gaulke said, criticizing the CPS for funding neighborhood town meetings with grant money from Wal-Mart’s Walton Family Foundation, a supporter of charter schools.

“We don’t need more cuts,” Rev. Gaulke told CPS officials. “We need new sources of revenue. We must invest in our schools. We will not let you buy and sell our children’s education.”

Byrd-Bennett involvement While CPS officials did not respond to any of the comments voiced at the meeting, they told smaller breakout sessions closed to reporters that transcripts from the meeting would be sent to top school officials, including Byrd-Bennett.

Several parents later said they had hoped to speak to Byrd- Bennett and other top CPS officials in person.

Biggs said many more people might have spoken at the town meeting if there had been time, noting the CPS showed a 30- minute PowerPoint presentation, “which didn’t leave much time for residents to talk,” she asserted.

Biggs said the only elected official she saw at the meeting was Ald. Pat Dowell, and that Bridgeport Alliance intends to talk to more elected officials.

“We parents have the strongest voices,” Biggs added. “We need to start using them.”

At the end of March, the CPS is expected to release a list of as many as 50 schools targeted for closing. The CPS, the nation’s third largest school district with 403,000 students in 681 schools with space for 511,000, has been meeting with parent groups across the city to get feedback on closing or consolidating allegedly underused schools.

According to the CPS, nearly 140 schools are more than halfempty and about 50% are underused — figures Biggs and other parents dispute.