Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Wednesday April 17th, 2013, 2:21pm

West Pullman Parents, Students Voice Safety & Gang Violence Concerns At School Closing Hearing

Parents and advocates in support of keeping West Pullman Elementary open called out Chicago Public Schools officials at a public hearing last night, asking if they've ever set foot in their school or its surrounding neighborhoods.

“Have you been there,” asked Susan Garza, a South Side resident and CPS counselor, after district representatives presented their case to the hearing officer. "Have you been to West Pullman? Because your portfolio is really impressive, but you haven't been there.”

Under CPS' proposal, West Pullman, at 11941 S. Parnell Ave., would close in June, and returning students would be assigned to Alex Haley Elementary Academy, 11411 S. Eggleston Ave.

Multiple West Pullman parents raised concerns about kids traveling through various gang territories to the new school, especially The 'Ville neighborhood, a part of Roseland surrounding Fenger Academy High School. Haley is located about a half mile from Fenger.

"For you all that haven’t been to West Pullman, nor Alex Haley, nor in our community, it’s a war going on," said parent Nina Stoner, who’s volunteered at West Pullman for more than 16 years. "Our babies are losing their lives.”

Garza said the proposal would put one gang into a school with another gang.

“They’re waiting for our kids to get to Haley, so they can kill them, slaughter them,” Stoner added.

John Morrissey, the independent hearing officer, noted that the district has created a safety proposal that would put police and other community protectors in the area starting next fall to ensure a safe transition.

Morrissey said closing a school is an "emotional[ly]-packed" issue, so he allowed people at the hearing to come up to the microphone multiple times to make statements.

“There’s a safety and security team there now, and there’s police in West Pullman now, and it doesn’t stop that,” Garza responded. "That’s what you guys have to understand.”

“Can you count on the police department,” Morrissey asked of the dozen community members.

Garza responded that Chicago is "the murder capital of world."

"Does that answer you," she asked. "Can we count on the police department? No, we cannot. There’s been how many murders this year already?”

Some parents and children at the meeting told Morrissey it sometimes takes police hours to respond to their 911 calls.

"Have you been over there to the neighborhoods," asked one eighth-grade West Pullman student. "Have you seen anything? No, you haven’t at all, because if you did, you would understand how we feel and how unsafe we are.”

Jackson Potter, staff coordinator with the Chicago Teachers Union, urged Morrissey to look at any and all sections of the Illinois School Code and the state constitution where the students' rights could be violated before making a recommendation to CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

"(Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance, child endangerment or abuse; that has to be taken into account, not simply the sections on the school code that allow them to close and turnaround and consolidate schools," Potter said. “If they’re putting children in harms way by haphazard and ill-advised policies, that has to be taken into account.”

CPS considers West Pullman underutilized, which is why it's slated to close. It had 301 students enrolled on the 20th day of the school year, making the building less than half full. Also, its enrollment has declined by 52 percent over the last ten years and the building requires $14.9 million to maintain and update, according to CPS. 

In total, CPS is looking to close 54 schools, consolidate 11 and turnaround six.

Karen Saffold, the chief of elementary schools for the Rock Island Network, made a statement in support of the proposal and noted that Haley is a higher performing, Level 2, school compared to West Pullman, a Level 3 academic performer.

"The CEO believes that this proposed closure will help the district better serve all students and is prepared to assist students with additional supports as they transition," Saffold said.

She added that the network will also provide as much assistance as needed to ease the transition.

But Stoner said closing West Pullman is "bigger than putting money in pockets" and addressing school utilization.

"You're not closing just a school, when you close West Pullman, you are affecting the whole community," she said.

The Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote on CPS' various school actions next month.

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