A part of the Austin neighborhood for nearly 135 years, known originally as South School, Emmet Elementary School is one of four schools in Austin slated for closing beginning in the 2013-2014 school year. The reason according to CPS: underutilization. Although it leveled out over the past year, Emmet’s enrollment had been decreasing for about the past eight years:
“If you look at the number of students over at Catalyst and students over at Plato, that’s where some of the students are disappearing to. If you extend more charter schools, obviously they are going to get the kind of money to recruit.”–Dwayne Truss, activist with Austin Community Action Council and Raise Your Hand.
The current building was built in 1913 and sits on the West side of Chicago at Madison Street and Central Avenue. Currently, it is the school of 458 African American students, only 66% of what the utilization should be according to CPS’s formula. This means with only 25 more students, Emmet would have hit the 70% utilization rate that CPS set as the minimum amount to not be closed this year. CPS says now that Emmet needs nearly $11.5M in repairs, but just three years ago in April 2010, their estimate was that it only needed $3.9M. (About $300K was spent in the interim to repair the building’s chimney and $20K to fix some masonry issues.)
“We will stand up to the Board of Education and tell them their data is inaccurate and biased: Emmet can only be considered under-utilized because CPS has denied us funding for more teachers and classrooms; Emmet doesn’t have air-conditioning because CPS has denied us money for it.” —Tammie Vinson, an Emmet teacher.
The school has not been retrofitted to meet ADA standards for accessibility, but Vinson has said that this was “a strategic move on CPS’ part not to make building improvements for students with disabilities in order to shut it down later.” CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley has admitted that CPS deliberately underfunds capital improvement needs for schools that they hope to close in the future.
The school is still waiting to see if the school closing will be approved at the Board of Education meeting on May 22nd, and while they wait, the parents and leaders in the community are doing what they can to put a stop to it. They’ve proposed an alternative plan where any empty space in Emmet would be used for community programs, like GED classes:
“Emmet can be supported with external resources and grants to support its conversion into a community school. It can house a cluster of community services in which service providers like not-for-profit health centers and social services can be housed. The social services can be accessed by the entire community. Intervention services and GED programs can be housed at Emmet in order to provide ongoing training to adults.”
The school is already doing more good than bad for the children in this community. Reading, math, and science scores have shown great improvement in the last three years. In 2009, 34% of the students were performing at or above the state standards in reading and 4% in math. In 2012, the scores were up to 83% for reading and 70% for math. The percentages of students meeting and exceeding standards on the ISAT were both higher than expected given the school’s demographic makeup. There are after-school programs from 3pm until 6pm where teachers stay and work with the kids. According to the 5 Essentials school report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, Emmet is organized for improvement, with the strongest possible rating for the categories of ‘ambitious instruction’ and ‘supportive environment’.
“None of my students have actually been killed. Some of the students from our building have. Teachers who have been here for years are regularly going to funerals.” —Tammie Vinson
Another concern is the space available at the other schools. Emmet is not the only school closing. Key, another school in the surrounding are is also closing. Students from both Emmet and Key will be sent to Ellington Elementary School, and many parents are concerned with the individual attention that their children will be getting at the new schools. The numbers indicate that Ellington will be severely overcrowded:
“The listed capacity is 780 based on CPS’ flawed 30 student per classroom. At least four classrooms were designed for a maximum of 15 special needs students. 30 students cannot fit into the four classrooms. Ellington’s revised capacity is 720. The projected total population proposed for Ellington is 895 students.”
In addition, Emmet has a very high homeless population, 19.1%:
“Since 2004, the Law Project has assisted students experiencing homelessness who were impacted by school closures. CPS has never demonstrated its ability to successfully serve students transitioning to new schools.[…] All students are harmed by this chaos and destabilization and students who are homeless are particularly vulnerable to harm. The very cornerstone of homeless education law and policy is to provide stability in education to students who lack stable housing.” –Patricia Nix-Hodes, associate legal director, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
Lettrice Johnson, mother of a first, second, fifth, and sixth grader at Emmet is the president of the Local School Council. She says they have until May 22nd to reverse the closing of Emmet. She says that if they change the principal or assistant principal, they may have a better chance of staying open. Numerous parents and teachers have been unhappy with the administration at Emmet, in particular the assistant principal. The principal has not held LSC meetings for two years, in violation of state law. A school’s LSC should have firing and hiring power for their principal, but since the 1995 revision of the Chicago School Reform Law, schools on probation cede much of their authority to CPS central administration. Emmet is the perfect example of the destabilization, disinvestment, and disenfranchisement that CPS has applied to school after school on the school actions list this year and in previous years:
“Instead of supporting these schools with rich curriculum, smaller classes, equitable resources, and programs that work, prior to closing them or turning them around, Chicago Public Schools has actually sabotaged them. There is a history of CPS destabilizing and disinvesting in African American and Latino schools and disenfranchising the students, parents, and teachers – despite the energy parents and communities have put in to improve their schools and to propose research-based solutions.”
Supporters of the school are trying hard to keep it open so that their children to not have to risk walking through gang lines to sit in an overcrowded classroom with no after school program. Let’s hope their struggles have a happy ending.
Post authors: Naomi Tovar with Cassie Creswell