Residents outraged at possible school closing

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The same month that Principal Carol Hardin received certificates from the Illinois Board of Education celebrating Abbott Elementary School’s gains in math, reading and attendance, she received a notice stating that the school may be shut down.

Now her students, who come from Wentworth Gardens public housing, will be bused to Alexander Graham Elementary School, 4436 S. Union Ave., which is a predominantly white and Hispanic school that is not achieving adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. Abbott, 3630 S. Wells St., has outperformed Graham on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test since 2004.

Abbott staff and Wentworth Gardens residents are angry and confused, and have vowed to fight the proposal, which the Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on Feb. 27. “I have a petition that I’m circulating through the community. I want the school to stay there,” said Lottie Weathersby, who has lived in Wentworth Gardens for 35 years. Chicago Public Schools says that Abbott is under-enrolled. The school’s building can hold as many as 1,050 students.

It currently has 99, according to a recent CPS report. School district officials noted that the school is using only nine percent of its space. But the calculation does not take into account the fact that after seven years of renovations, Wentworth is only two-thirds full and residents are still returning. According to Hardin, a 2001 decision by the Chicago Housing Authority to renovate Wentworth Gardens led to an exodus of residents, and Abbott’s enrollment dropped from 326 in the 2000-01 school year to 268 in the 2002-03 school year.

Bryan Zises, a CHA spokesman, said that renovation on Wentworth’s 344 units is “just completing,” and only 200 are occupied.

Wentworth and Abbott sit across the street from each other, occupying three blocks that are boxed in by the U.S. Cellular Field, parking lots and the Dan Ryan Expressway. Wentworth is Abbott’s main source for students. But David Pickens, deputy to CPS chief executive officer, said that the complex could never provide enough students.

According to Pickens, there are currently 60 elementary aged kids at Wentworth; 44 attend Abbott and 16 attend other schools. “We looked at their best case scenario. If every unit was filled and had multiple CPS students in their homes,” Pickens said it would still not be enough. But that is not the only controversy. Abbott also houses the Easter Seals infants program and the Choir Academy charter school.

With their combined enrollment, total attendance is 323. However, their enrollment was not factored into the building’s space usage and Hardin is asking why. Pickens said that the infant program and charter school “had nothing to do with Abbott.” “We don’t use the addition of a charter school and the addition of an additional program as a factor, because we can put those programs anywhere,” Pickens said.

But Hardin is adamant that in all her years at Abbott, she has never seen more than 500 students in the building. She has been at Abbott since 1981, and said it could never hold 1,050 students. To calculate a school’s total capacity, CPS sets 30 students per 600-square-feet or more, or one student per 20-square-feet or more, as the “average” classroom size.

Hardin has appeared before the school board twice in the last month and is working with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization which does grassroots organizing. “Abbott has met all the criteria, they’ve [made] annual yearly progress, they’ve raised their test scores, and the children have a connection to the school, that school should be supported, not eliminated,” said Jitu Brown, KOCO’s education organizer.

______ Copyright 2008 Chicago Defender. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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