Dear Barbara Byrd Bennett, We're talking. Are you listening?

Dear Barbara Byrd Bennett, I missed you at the community forum Monday night.

You know, the forum at St. Anselm’s Catholic Church? A sort of open-mic night where south side folks could talk to you CPS people? We had the Burnham Park Network brass there, but not you.

I don’t know why I expected you, but I did.

Everybody was there! Two aldermen, a state representative, a priest, and an ASL interpreter. And hundreds of people! Hundreds! It seems folks really care about their schools. They all wanted to come and tell you why you should not pick their schools. Eloquently, logically, emotionally, emphatically. Don’t choose us, they all said.

Nobody wants to be picked for the school closures list.

Do you want to hear some of the reasons why people want you not to choose their schools? I mean, just in case nobody filled you in. I know you’re a busy woman.

I’ll tell you a few.

Please don’t choose us, some said, because if you close our school our children will have to cross gang territory lines to get to another school and that’s dangerous. (Nobody said it, but you know it’s getting more dangerous down here than it’s been in a long time, here on the south side. But then, I need to talk to somebody else about that problem.)

Please don’t choose us, some said, because our school isn’t actually underutilized–we have after-school programs like ballet with the Joffrey, we function as an important center of community in our neighborhood, we’re open 7 days a week if need be, and anyway, our classes all have about 35 to 40 children in them, sometimes more. (That’s because of that crazy, wacky formula you people use to figure out how many teachers our schools are allotted, you know. I don’t really get that formula; our “underutilized” school has had class sizes of 32  to 37 since my now 14-year-old started first grade there. Whatever. I’m sure you understand it.)

Please don’t choose us, some said, because our children aren’t line items in a budget, they’re not numbers on a chart, they’re not marbles you can dump from one can into another.  They’re children. They require and deserve stability, safety, consistency. They shouldn’t be moved around like game tokens. (A lot of these kids have, you know. It practically broke my heart to hear about how some of these schools you want to close, they’ve already been “turned around,” having had the entire staff fired and a new one brought in, some as recently as last year. Whole schools of kids have already been moved from one school to another, and another, and another.  I wonder, you have so many formulas–do you have a formula to figure out the impact of that on a child’s education?)

Please don’t choose us, some said, because we just got new computers! We just replaced all our textbooks, so kids won’t be using the same ones their parents used! We’ve just established new school-community partnerships! We finally have a stable new administration after 4 principals in rapid succession! We’re on a roll here, please let us proceed! (Many of these gains were reached by means of corporate-community partnerships. You know, CPS budgets being tight and all.)

There were 62 schools represented.  62 pitches your guys had to sit through, calmly and impassively.

It was a long night.

A few speakers pointed out that this was not in fact really much of a conversation. We talked, your guys sat in stony silence, occasionally scribbling notes. A few speakers let on that they suspected your decisions had already been made, and this was all just so much t.v. news fodder. It looks kind of good, you know, to let people air their opinions.

Some folks were especially angry, and after delineating their very real lists of grievances, had the gall to suggest that the downtown office wasn’t doing its job and in fact they’re the ones who should be downsized! Imagine!

Well, you’ll have to. You weren’t there after all.

I see on a flyer that came home from my daughter’s school that what you want is “right-sizing.” That sounds so perky and new and improved.

Oh, no doubt, there needs to be improvement! Most of those school leaders, LSC presidents, teachers, and principals who came begging for mercy are from “tier 3” schools–that is, their kids aren’t performing up to the standards of the formulas. Resources are minimal, communities are hemmorhaging population, and services, and lifeblood. And those property taxes that uphold this whole thing? They’re a little anemic down here. All that tends to affect the test scores.

I know, I know. It’s not your problem that rival gangs roam the roads. It’s not your problem that though they’re trying their darnedest, many people don’t have jobs and can’t afford winter coats, much less school supplies. It’s not your problem that there is a high percentage of homelessness among the kids in these schools. It’s not your problem that there aren’t good grocery stores to supply families with real food so kids can grow up strong and smart.

Of course we know who to blame for the impact of these things, who to hold accountable for the way in which all these things work together to even create a “tier 3” in the first place–teachers! All these things are their problems.

It is your problem to “right-size,” somehow getting control of a $1 billion budget deficit (honestly, that’s a rather surprising number! I actually gasped when I read it. How did CPS do that anyway?). It’s your problem to make your boss look good, and put a good media face on it all.

It doesn’t really look very good right now. Even that shameful, distressing, disheartening event masquerading as a community forum on Monday night isn’t helping. Things might look a little better for you people right now if anyone, anywhere had actually ever made an effort to have a real conversation with the people whose neighborhood public schools are being treated as pawns in a crazy chaotic board game. If anyone had actually sat down with the leaders of the schools you want to close, listened to them, and brainstormed together about the best way to go about this right-sizing.

But that would take a long time! And I know you’re a busy woman.




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