CHICAGO — “Save our schools,” someone shouted from the crowd of more than 100 legislators, teachers, students, parents, and religious and community activists during a public hearing Feb. 9 at the Chicago Public Schools administration building.

The nation’s third-largest school district announced late last month that it plans to close four schools that fall short of federal standards because of “academic deficiency” under the No Child Left Behind Act. Three “low performing” elementary schools are to close at the end of the school year and one high school will be phased out, school officials said.

The proposed closures, supported by Mayor Richard Daley, would affect 1,065 of the district’s 426,000 students and displace 270 employees. The four schools are among 185 Chicago public schools classified as “in need of restructuring,” with the district threatening to fire teachers and slash programs to balance the budget.

Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart criticized the district’s decision, saying the union was not consulted about the closings until the last minute. “Our children are more than a number,” she said at the hearing.

Referring to the proposed mass privatization of public schools under Daley’s Renaissance 2010 school reform plan, and the district’s promotion of military academies, Stewart said, “Public schools should remain public. We don’t need military academies, we need vocational schools.”

Under Renaissance 2010 the lowest-performing schools are to be closed and replaced with smaller schools free from many district controls. Three or four schools are expected to close every year. The district has been closing schools for the last three years, but it has slowed the pace since 2004 when the closing of 12 schools created massive community upheaval.

State Sen. Ricky Hendon made his opposition to the school closings clear during the hearing. “I know these students can learn,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a dumb child. It’s just dumb administrators that don’t want to educate these children for a variety of reasons, and to blame it on the children is ridiculous.” Hendon says he hasn’t seen evidence of necessary additional resources being provided to the schools and their communities. He promised to fight the closings.

The schools slated for closure are concentrated in predominantly African American communities that lack adequate affordable housing, recreational and alternative arts programs for youth, community centers and jobs.

Chicago remains one of the nation’s most segregated cities, which is in turn reflected in the population of its public schools. Poor African American and Latino neighborhoods face problems of gangs, drugs, racism and police brutality that spill over into school problems that under-funded, under-staffed schools are ill equipped to handle.

Many community activists and legislators believe these schools are being targeted for other reasons.

“Many of my constituents believe that this is about gentrification, and I feel like they’re right this time,” 24th Ward Alderman Michael Chandler said at the hearing.

Tatiana Coleman, a freshman at Collins High School, one of the schools slated for closing, told the school officials, “You don’t tear down a school to put up a new one. You make it better.”

Near the end of the hearing, the mostly African American crowd that packed the room sang softly, “We shall overcome, some day.”

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