Irene Robinson said she is taking her grandchildren to Anthony Overton Elementary School in the fall, despite the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district's decision to shutter the building for good last month. Overton Elementary, at 221 E. 49th St. in the Bronzeville neighborhood, is one of 50 schools the Chicago Board of Education voted to close as the district faces a massive budget deficit. Progress Illinois took a walk with Robinson and two of her grandchildren to what CPS has deemed to be their new welcoming school.
Irene Robinson said she is taking her grandchildren to Anthony Overton Elementary School in the fall, despite the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district's decision to shutter the building for good last month.
“I’m not sending my grandkids anyplace else,” said the 48 year-old grandmother of 13, the youngest of which is 10 months old. “My kids went to Overton and they’re doing great. Why should I have to send my grandkids to a new place and put their education at risk?”
Overton Elementary, at 221 East 49th St. in the Bronzeville neighborhood, is one of 50 schools the Chicago Board of Education voted to close this year as the district faces a massive budget deficit.
Six of Robinson’s grandchildren, ages four to 12, were enrolled in Overton last year. Her home, where the kids stay during the week while their parents work, is across the street from the school.
“When school starts back up, I’ll be right here fighting,” she said.
The school CPS slated to receive Overton’s students is Irvin C. Mollison Elementary. Both schools are ranked Level 3, the lowest performance label CPS assigns. Only three years ago, in 2010, the district proposed closing Mollison due to underperformance.
Located at 4415 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., the welcoming school is nearly a mile away from Robinson's home.
“There’s prostitutes on the street. There’s gangs and drugs on the street. There’s predators driving around, lurking, looking for these children,” she said. “They’re setting up our children to fall into that bracket where they end up getting killed or in jail.”
On a walk from her home to Mollison on Friday morning, Robinson and two of her grandchildren traversed past dark alleys and vacant buildings and hustled across four busy lanes of traffic on both 47th St., and Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.
“My legs are on fire,” said Marlin Garner, 8, one of Overton's nearly 400 displaced students. He trekked the route to Mollison with his grandmother and sister on Friday and, having just completed second grade, curiously peeked in windows when he wasn’t holding Robinson’s hand during the walk.
“This is the longest walk ever,” said Akilra Roberts, 12, Robinson’s oldest grandchild who will enter the seventh grade next school year. She eyed vacant buildings suspiciously as she avoided stepping in broken glass on the walk.
Robinson, who doesn’t have a car, called the trip “terrifying” and said it’s too dangerous for her grandchildren:
While Overton, a majority African American school, has been on probation for the last three years, the school’s composite Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) scores have risen since 2010. In 2012 and 2011, 59 and 60.5 percent of students met or exceeded state standards, respectively. That’s up from 52.4 percent in 2010.
In a school where an overwhelming majority of the students come from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, Robinson said the school’s test scores are “pretty good.”
“You don’t need to fix something that’s not broken,” she said. “You can improve it, but you don’t need to tear it up. Ain’t nothing wrong with Overton.”
Reporting a $1 billion deficit and a pension payment of at least $400 million, school closures across CPS’ district led to massive layoffs as the district slashed budgets for a large number of the remaining schools in the district. More than 3,000 teachers and school personnel have been given pink slips, and principals are struggling with a new per-pupil budgeting process that provides far less funds than what schools were given last year.
At the most recent Chicago Board of Education meeting, the district released its preliminary budget for fiscal year 2014. The proposal includes plans to cut classroom funds by $68 million and raise property taxes as high as possible.
“Parents’ level of frustration with this mayor and his handpicked board of education has peaked,” said Brandon Johnson, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).
As a means of offsetting the staggering budget shortfall, the CTU has suggested CPS officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel seek out additional revenues, such as dedicating tax increment financing (TIF) funds to the debt-stricken school district,
“The system is being gutted by these school closings and dirty, unconscionable budget cuts,” he said. “A lot parents no longer feel secure in their child’s education or, for the kids who have to travel long distances, even their safety.”
To provide protection for displaced students, CPS is ramping up, and spending an additional $7.7 million, on the Safe Passage Program. Under the program, local community groups are charged with providing a safe route to and from school in some of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
“Student safety is among our top priorities,” CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement last month. “Expanding the successful Safe Passage program to include next year’s welcoming schools is one of several steps we’re taking to create safe environments in and around our schools. Safe Passage workers are the eyes and ears of their communities and will be our partners in providing safe routes to and from school every day for students.”
In the wake of the school closures, the district is in the process of hiring an additional 600 neon-vested Safe Passage workers.
“Safe Passage is a lot of bull crap,” said Robinson. “People in green vests? These gangs don’t even care about the police.”
The program is an attempt by the district to “put a Band-aid on a bullet wound,” said Jitu Brown, education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO).
“Before you do any type of transforming of institutions, you’ve got to transform the conditions of the neighborhood so that the things that would normally be harmful cease to exist,” he said. “They should have worked on stopping the drug trade around Overton, stopping the prostitution that goes on in this area, that kind of stuff is rampant and now kids could be more susceptible to it.”
As an example of the neighborhood’s violence, Brown pointed to the fatal shooting of 19 year-old, Columbia College student Kevin Ambrose in May near the 47th Street Green Line Station. The incident occurred only two blocks from Overton Elementary and Robinson’s home.
He added that less than 100 Overton parents have enrolled their students in Mollison Elementary.
“By flooding these schools with upwards of 200 students, CPS is setting the welcoming schools and the students up for failure,” he said.
Meanwhile, Robinson plans to continue to push back against Overton’s closure and will not enroll her grandchildren in Mollison. She is advocating for support from parents in the neighborhood and is asking affected families to join her at Overton on the first day of school.
“I’m going to keep fighting to keep Overton open. If we all unite together, there’s no way we can lose,” she said. “Taking this school away is going to destroy so many children, and it’s wrong.”