Residents of Chicago’s North Side neighborhoods of Ravenswood and Uptown got their final opportunity Wednesday night to voice concerns over the impending merger of two elementary schools.
"Is the power really with the people or is it with the administration," asked Tonya Hunter, a concerned citizen of Ravenswood, at yesterday's meeting. "Are we wasting our time? Is the train already in motion and running, because if it is, do we have any data that school closings benefit children overall?"
The Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) plan to close 54 schools across the district includes a proposal calling for Ravenswood’s Mary E. Courtenay Elementary Language Arts Center to take over Uptown’s Joseph Stockton Elementary School.
The Stockton building will remain open, but will take the Courtenay name, students and staff, while the Ravenswood school building will close.
But at last night’s public hearing, the final installment of community engagement on this particular school action hosted by CPS, parents, staff and activists voiced concerns for Stockton teachers’ jobs and potential overcrowding in the school.
“At the end of the day, we don’t want to see any school closing and we don’t want to see Stockton school closing ... It means a loss of jobs,” said Damaris Woodberry, a two-year kindergarten teacher at Stockton Elementary, during the public meeting.
Stockton, at 4425 N. Beacon St., is a level three school with 473 students. It was put on probation this year after scoring only 16 out of a possible 42 performance policy points on November’s progress report, well less than the needed 21 points to retain the school’s last year position as level two.
Courtenay is a level two school in good academic standing with 280 students. The school, at 1726 W. Berteau Ave., scored 27 of the possible 42 points. In its current space, Courtenay does not have a library or separate lunchroom and gym facilities.
“As a level three school, we all at Stockton want everyone to know that level three is not indicative of our commitment of our daily grind and serving our students,” said Woodberry.
Mediated by former Judge Charles Winkler, the meeting, held at CPS headquarters at 125 S. Clark St., opened with a presentation from Benjamin Felton, portfolio planner for Chicago Public Schools, that supported the merger proposal.
Winkler will eventually prepare a formal report to be provided to the Chicago Board of Education that includes a summary of the hearing and determines whether CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett's proposal complies with the space utilization requirements and guidelines.
He said the public input was “inspiring” and “enlightening.”
According to Felton, ideal enrollment for Stockton’s 35 homerooms is 1,050 students.
Those numbers are attached to a 30-student per classroom standard. If enrollment falls between 80 percent and 120 percent of its ideal capacity, an approximate average of 24 to 36 students, the school is considered efficient.
Thus, according to Felton, for Stockton to meet utilization standards, enrollment must fall between 840 and 1,260 students.
Felton also said the proposal allows Stockton students the opportunity to enroll in a higher performing school.
But Wendy Kattan, executive director for Raise Your Hand, a grassroots coalition advocating for quality education, questioned the lack of floor plans for space utilization in schools slated for actions, and suggested that special education students thrive in smaller classroom environments.
“We should have floor plans, I’ve been to (Stockton) and the CPS space utilization formula does not account for schools with high special education populations,” she said.
More than 30 percent of students at both Courtenay and Stockton are special education.
Kattan suggested to accommodate the population of special education students, the building would need several classrooms of eight to 15 students.
“I do think Stockton will have increased class sizes and loss of program space,” she said. “The formula allows for mass overcrowding.”
Claudia Pesenti, a first-grade teacher at Stockton Elementary for seven years, agreed with Kattan that smaller classes sizes are necessary for optimal learning for special education students.
“How will nine homerooms from Courtenay be accommodated and be able to be in Stockton without losing rooms and programs that we already have,” she asked, noting that one eighth-grade classroom at Stockton currently has 35 students.
Here’s more from Pesenti, who also expressed concerns for her job:
It is unclear whether Stockton teachers will be offered positions if the merger is approved by the Chicago Board of Education during the May 22 vote.
“Tenured teachers with Superior or Excellent ratings will follow the students to the welcoming schools to the extent vacancies are created by the increase in students,” Robyn Ziegler, director of media affairs for the Chicago Public Schools, said in a statement.
She added that teacher placements would be made based upon certification and seniority.
But Stockton teacher Woodberry said the school's staff would continue to work to the utmost of their ability.
“We are absolutely committed to our children,” she said. “We will continue to serve our students from sun-up to sun-down, as well as welcome any other new students, because that is what we do as teachers and that is what every child deserves."