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Chicago schools transition _ smooth or rocky?

Monday - 12/9/2013, 9:44am  ET

Devion Allen, right, an eighth-grader at Chopin Elementary School, walks home on a Safe Passage route with friends in Chicago on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. Allen's former school, Lafayette Elementary, closed in June. He now attends Chopin, a welcoming school that has run into a significant shortage of space since the two schools combined. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

MARTHA IRVINE
AP National Writer

CHICAGO (AP) -- Devion Allen peers wistfully through a door window at the school he used to attend. Those who live outside his gritty, violence-plagued neighborhood might dismiss this towering brick building as just another failing urban school. But to the eighth grader, the school across the street from his mom's subsidized apartment was a haven -- "like a family," he says.

To the administrators of Chicago Public Schools, though, the neighborhood school was underutilized and underperforming -- one of 47 public schools that closed in the city in June, most of them in high-poverty neighborhoods with mostly minority populations. Two more will be phased out by the end of the school year.

Allen left his school for the last time last summer, holding back tears as chaos and protests ensued. From that point on, the school, formerly known as Lafayette Elementary, became a symbol in a citywide and even national debate about the future course of public education.

Soon, officials say, the empty building will likely house an arts high school operated as a contract school, publicly funded but privately run.

"It's not fair," Allen said. He and many of his friends, meanwhile, have been shifted to a school about a half mile away, one that is smaller than their old school and jammed with twice as many students as it had last school year.

Officials have dubbed it a "welcoming school," the name given to the Chicago schools that have taken in students from closed buildings.

The idea was to send displaced students to schools with better test scores, combining forces to give them a better shot at a good education.

That appears to be happening at some of the combined schools, where those involved say they're making the best of a challenging situation.

"It's going to be OK. It's going to be OK," grandparent Dexter Leggin tells students and parents when he works at an after-school program at Melody Elementary, a welcoming school on the city's West Side.

To lighten the mood and promote unity, he's taken to calling the school "Melano" -- a combination of Melody and Delano Elementary, the closed school. In this instance, the school took the Melody name because it was the higher-performing school, but kept the Delano building because it was a better fit. Leggin says that arrangement has helped.

Overall, Chicago Public Schools officials say the transition has been going smoothly and insist that, as they'd hoped, most students are in a better situation than they were before.

"We've kept that promise," said Denise Little, who leads the team that oversees the district's principals.

Some teachers and parents at welcoming schools, however, tell a very different story. They complain that overcrowding and an overall lack of support is making the transition rough.

The Chopin School, where Allen attends, is so packed that the staff there has had to give up the very amenities this transition was supposed to provide -- the computer lab, the library and art and music rooms. The school's psychologist, occupational therapist and speech pathologist also are working in windowless, unvented spaces that were formerly storage closets. Sometimes, students are tested there.

Special education students also have suffered, say teachers and student advocates. At least one school that has dozens of new special ed students, the Courtenay Language Arts Center, has yet to set up a behavioral health team to assess those children's needs in a faster, more organized way, staff members say.

And teacher Michael Flynn says his school is using a room not much larger than one of those closets as a special education room for 13 children because there's simply no other option.

"There's not enough space. There's not enough resources," said Flynn, a longtime seventh-grade literature and social studies teacher at the James Otis World Language Academy, a welcoming school northwest of downtown Chicago. Despite the school's name, the world languages teacher was among those who lost a classroom because of the space constraints and, instead, travels from room to room.

It's an atmosphere, Flynn says, that has done little to help the colliding worlds meld -- and that he and others fear might doom some welcoming schools to the same fate as those that closed.

"There's all this pressure to outperform yourself from last year, even though you've taken in all these kids from tough situations," Flynn said.

"I don't know how you do that."

___

It's a dilemma that school districts across the country have faced, especially urban districts with big pockets of poverty.

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