Graeme Stewart Elementary School is like a giant Sequoya with extensive roots in a forest newly filled with invasive species — a newly built Target store, condo developments, and a recently remodeled BMO Harris Bank. Situated in Uptown, which has been a battleground on issues of gentrification for the last 50 years, this 110-year-old historic landmark sits surrounded by green space. Mayor Emanuel and Alderman Cappleman would love to see this prime real estate (oops, I mean “underutilized” school) be used for something more profitable than educating low-income children from the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, Stewart Elementary is in the wrong place at the wrong time. It has been slated to close at the end of this school year as the City makes plans to move the 256 students (98.1% of whom are low income) to Brenneman school, which is faring no better even though CPS has promised that displaced students from “low performing” schools will be moved only to higher performing schools. Stewart serves a diverse student body : 50.4% of the students are Black, while Latinos make up 40.5%; 18.7% of students qualify for Special Education services, and 35.5% are English Language Learners (ELL).
What’s tragic is that this school has been an anchor for families in Uptown across multiple generations. And for good reason. In just this past year, the school went from a Level 3 to a Level 2 status, which means it’s considered a school in “good standing”. According to Tricia Black, a teacher at Stewart, “This school year we went from a level 3 to a level 2 so the academics are solid. The note sent home to parents [upon the announcement of the school closing] made it seem like the students were being sent to an academically far superior school, which was insulting.”
And more important, Stewart is more than a test score. All one has to do is set foot on the grounds of this vibrant school to understand that students are respected, challenged and nurtured in a safe environment. Not only are the academics strong, but the school can boast the following:
- A well-developed music and theater program headed by Reggie Spears, who has been an outspoken advocate for the school. It even has its own dedicated website. Last fall the school put on a production of The Wiz. There are band and guitar programs as well as talent shows organized by the music teacher.
- A program for autistic children, which uses two classrooms at the school, one for younger-aged children and one for older students. The teacher for the younger kids has a long history at Stewart and doesn’t know if she’ll be able to move with these students. This is a tragedy since it will be extremely difficult for these children to transition to a new school without a familiar face.
- Several extra-curricular activities, including a running program for girls and a before-school Tai Kwon Do program.
- Headstart and full day kindergarten.
- Close ties with social service agencies and after-school programs that serve the needs of the large immigrant population at the school.
- Heartland Alliance provides social work services to many of the immigrant and refugee families at the school.
- Christopher House has a location near the school and provides after-school care for many students.
- An after-school program across the street from Stewart supports African immigrants.
Although CPS branded this school “underutilized,” there is only one room in the school that is not being used by students every day. This room is being used as storage for classroom furniture and supplies. Apparently CPS believes every classroom should have wall-to-wall children and the supplies should be stored in the ceiling panels. The other classrooms that CPS has decided don’t count in their utilization formula are being used for: the speech and occupational therapist, the social worker, ESL pull-out and RTI, Special Education, the Bilingual Lead Teacher, a parent resource room, a book room for guided reading books, the principal’s office/meeting space. These support teachers are just as important as the homeroom teacher in running a school.
Although the school is on the chopping block, the Stewart community refuses to accept this decision; they will continue to fight for its survival. About 150 parents, students, teachers and community members gathered on April 28th to oppose CPS’s decision to close the school. The school’s band, directed by Reggie Spears, proudly displayed the school’s spirit by playing “Eye of the Tiger” toward the busy intersection as if to say, “This is who we are and we’re not going to roll over and play dead.” According to an article on the website DNAinfo.com, Mr. Spears said that none of his band members want to go. “You can see them standing on the front lines to fight it right now.” The welcoming school already has a music teacher, so the incredibly talented Spears will be out of a job.
In an unexpected turn of events, hearing officers (many of them retired state and federal judges) who had been hired by CPS to oversee the school closings process recommended against closing Stewart and a dozen other schools on the proposed list of 54.
On April 16, Judge Charles Winkler issued a report after listening to testimonies of eleven people in the Board of Education’s hearing room and after reviewing the transcripts of the community meetings conducted at Amundsen High School on April 8 and April 11, he recommended the following: “Since a definitive safety plan will not be ready until late August, 2013, CPS should consider delaying the implementation of the proposal until the 2014-2015 school year. The 256 Stewart students will be traveling a new route to a new school. Will an understaffed Chicago Police Department be able to provide enough officers to assist the Stewart children? Will CPS hire a private security company to furnish properly trained personnel? Is there really enough time to get everyone up to speed so the 14, 400 children from the closing schools are provided safe passage?” (Source: Chicago Public Schools website)
These comments echo the sentiments of many current Stewart parents who have expressed concern about the longer walk to Brenneman and worry that their children will not be safe because of some of the neighborhood violence. At the rally on the 28th, several people spoke, including a 12-year-old student:
“My name is Cortera Hampton and I don’t want our schools to close. Stewart is a family to me. I love our band and congratulations to Mr. Spears. I just think Stewart is a family to me and I would love to save it.” –Cortera Hampton, Stewart student, age 12
According to teacher and student responses on the My Voice, My Schools 5Essentials Survey, Stewart scored high points in the areas of ambitious instruction and supportive environment.
It’s ironic that this school is now destined to become another abandoned building when just a few years ago, in 2008, then Mayor Richard M. Daley, spoke at a ceremony to dedicate a brand new campus park at Stewart Elementary. According to the Mayor, this was a $1.64 million project to surround the school with green open spaces filled with grass, trees and flowers, which would “send a powerful message to our communities that the school system cares about the condition of the buildings and the people who use them every day. We are essentially building parks on the grounds of our schools to improve the quality of life for our children and the entire community.” He added, “These places draw residents rather than keep them at arms length, and serve as neighborhood anchors in ways public school buildings ought to.” (Source: Public Buildings Commission of Chicago website)
Well … unless that community gets in the way of gentrification in the Uptown neighborhood.