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After hearing from aldermen, angry parents and community members in a meeting interrupted several times by protesters, the Chicago Board of Education today approved a plan to close 49 elementary schools and one high school program.

The board voted 4-2 to close Von Humboldt Elementary, then unanimously approved the rest of the closings in a single vote.

Before that, the board voted 6-0 to approve a last-minute recommendation by the district to spare four elementary schools: Manierre Elementary on the Near North Side, Mahalia Jackson and Garvey on the South Side and Ericson on the West Side.

After more than two hours of public comments, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and board members defended the plan to close the highest number of schools the city has ever shut down in a single year.

“We can no longer embrace the status quo because the status quo is not working for all Chicago school children,” Byrd-Bennett said before the vote was taken. “It is imperative that you take the difficult decision but essential steps.”

The district says it needs to close schools to address a looming $1 billion deficit and declining enrollment.

Board President David Vitale, in his remarks before the vote, said that while closing schools is difficult “ultimately it is our responsibility to choose.”

“Today’s reality requires change,” he said.

One by one, board members cited the necessity of closing schools to deal with the district’s fiscal challenges.

“We have to fix our schools and in order to do that we can’t continue to operate with the number of schools we have,” said board member Andrea Zopp said.

Board member Mahalia Hines said she wondered if CPS should wait another year and related it to a recent trip she made to the dentist’s office when he recommended an unpleasant procedure and she thought about waiting a year.

“He said it will continue to decay and the pain will be unbearable,” she said. “The decay can no longer continue.”

Board member Carlos Azcoitia said he wouldn’t have supported any of the actions if he felt CPS wasn’t going to fully support the remaining neighborhood schools.

“Now our big responsibility is to make this work and make neighborhood schools stronger as an option within our communities,” he said.

Board member Andrea Zopp said she is moved by the passion of protesters but that doing nothing is not an option.

“We have to fix our schools and in order to do that we can’t continue to operate with the number of schools we have,” Zopp said.

Before the meeting, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said that she thinks Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has lobbied for closings, all along that he wanted to shut down 50 schools.

“Four schools is a start,” Lewis said of the district’s decision to spare four schools at the 11th hour. “It’s a good start but it’s not enough.”

Emanuel’s office issued a statement after the vote in which the mayor thanked “CEO Byrd-Bennett, the Board, the Commission and the tens of thousands of community members who have played an invaluable role in helping to ensure every child in this city has access to an education that matches their full potential.”

“I know this is incredibly difficult, but I firmly believe the most important thing we can do as a city is provide the next generation with a brighter future,” Emanuel’s statement read. “More hard work lies ahead, but I am confident that together with teachers and principals, engaged parents and community support, our children will succeed.”

An hour and a half before the start of the meeting, about 30 protesters formed a circle in front of school board headquarters at 125 S. Clark Street and chanted, “Education is a right. Not just for the rich and white.”

The board room was packed with about 200 people, and during the public comment portion of the meeting, several aldermen spoke up for schools slated to be closed in their wards.

Ald. LaTasha Thomas, 17th, chairman of the education committee, asked the board to take “a step back.”

“How are the children and families better prepared to make positive change in their lives as a rult of the decision you make?” she asked.

“We’re talking about grammar school kids. We’re talking about babies,” said Ald. Walter Burnettt, 27th.

The school closings would be the most by an urban district in recent history, a fact noted by Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th.

“I urge you this is not a record we want to set,” he said. “We don’t want to look back in five years and say, ‘What did we do?’“ Pawar said.

A group of about 15 people came up to the podium and as one of them, Rebecca Martinez, spoke, a man standing with her, Shannon Bennett of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, started yelling.

“This board is illegitimate!” he said.

Security quickly moved in and tried to pull Bennett away from the podium. As security continued to try to pull the people out of the room, the group of 15 began singing, “We shall not be moved” while security tried to usher them out of the board room.

They continued signing as they were being ushered out of the room.

Parents at schools taken off the list by Byrd-Bennett expressed joy and relieve. Sherise McDaniel was at a meeting to discuss security at Jenner Elementary, where Manierre students were expected to go if there school was closed, when she learned that Manierre had been saved.

“We were jumping up and down, the kids were screaming. It was just a gift,” said McDaniel, who has two children at the Near NorthSide School.

“I had so many highs and lows with this situation,” McDaniel said. “One minute it was looking like there was no hope for us, no matter what was said, no one was listening, no one cared. And then in the next moment when the independent review board agreed with us, we thought, yes, we did it, we have a chance.”

“We feel extremely blessed. Our prayers were answered,” said Tyisha Whitmore, 34, whose daughters are in the 3rd and 8th grade at Garvey Elementary. “We are ecstatic, grateful, still sad about the other 50 schools that will still be closing, because no school should be closed.”

By law, the board was supposed to have a school closing plan in place by last Dec. 1. But Byrd-Bennett won an extension from the General Assembly, saying the district needed to engage the community before undertaking such a massive endeavor.

Months of hearings drew often angry crowds through the winter as CPS gradually whittled down an initial list of 330 schools it said were underenrolled.

The CTU, whose members stand to lose jobs, has led the opposition along with parents and community leaders. While some high performing teachers will follow students to new schools based on need, the vast majority will now be forced to look for jobs.

The CTU has filed two federal lawsuits challenging the closings, arguing that discriminate against special needs children and African Americans, since most of the schools slated to be shut down are predominantly black.

The following elementary schools, and one high school program, are closing:

1. Louis Armstrong Math & Science Elementary School

2. Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School

3. Arna Wendell Bontemps Elementary School

4. Kate S Buckingham Special Education Center

5. John Calhoun North Elementary School

6. Miriam G Canter Middle School

7. Ana Roque de Duprey Elementary School

8. Robert Emmet Elementary School

9. Nathan R Goldblatt Elementary School

10. Matthew A Henson Elementary School

11. Francis Scott Key Elementary School

12. William H King Elementary School

13. Alfred David Kohn Elementary School

14. Jean D Lafayette Elementary School

15. Guglielmo Marconi Elementary Community Academy

16. Garrett A Morgan Elementary School

17. Near North Elementary School

18. Anthony Overton Elementary School

19. Jesse Owens Elementary Community Academy

20. Ignance Paderewski Elementary Learning Academy

21. Francis Parkman Elementary School

22. Elizabeth Peabody Elementary School

23. Nathaniel Pope Elementary School

24. Betsy Ross Elementary School

25. Songhai Elementary Learning Institute

26. Graeme Stewart Elementary School

27. Lyman Trumbull Elementary School

28. Alexander von Humboldt Elementary School

29. West Pullman Elementary School

30. Granville T Woods Math & Science Academy ES

31. Elihu Yale Elementary School

32. Crispus Attucks Elementary School

33. John P Altgeld Elementary School

34. Benjamin Banneker Elementary School

35. Edward C Delano Elementary School

36. Dumas Technology Academy

37. Enrico Fermi Elementary School

38. Garfield Park Preparatory Academy ES

39. Elaine O Goodlow Elementary Magnet School

40. Victor Herbert Elementary School

41. Robert H Lawrence Elementary School

42. Horatio May Elementary Community Academy

43. William J & Charles H Mayo Elementary School

44. Pershing West Middle School

45. Martin A Ryerson Elementary School

46. Austin O Sexton Elementary School

47. Joseph Stockton Elementary School

48. Williams Multiplex Elementary School

49. Williams Preparatory Academy Middle School

50. Roswell B Mason Elementary School (high school program only)


– Chicago Tribune Reporting