Chicago Daily Law Bulletin: Attorneys, bar group oppose CPS closures

By Jenn Ballard

More than 100 lawyers signed a letter urging Chicago Public Schools to halt the proposed closings of 54 schools.

Of the 47,500 elementary students who attend the 54 schools, 3,900 are homeless and 2,400 require special education services, the letter states.

“We hope the letter will be one more element that will make the board think again before they close all these schools,” said Paul L. Strauss, co-director of litigation at the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Inc.

“Realistically, this is just one piece of protest.”

The 128 attorneys, including Strauss, who signed the five-page letter sent it Monday to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and David Vitale, president of the Chicago Board of Education.

Read the full text of the letter.

Strauss said he hopes officials will postpone the closures and try to find an alternative solution. The Chicago Board of Education will vote on the closures Wednesday.

Laurene M. Heybach, director at the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, also signed the letter.

The 8 percent homeless rate at the 54 schools is 4 percentage points higher than the district average, she said. The closures will especially hurt those students who, Heybach said, lack continuity and stability in their lives.

“A rule of thumb amongst educators is that every time a student changes schools, he or she can lose between four to six months of academic time,” she said. “When you have a population that is already struggling academically and then you impose a forced school change, that is another setback.”

Stacey E. Platt, an associate director and clinical professor at the Civitas ChildLaw Center at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, signed the letter because her husband teaches and her children attend schools in the district.

While her children do not go to one of the schools proposed for closure, she said she worries about students’ safety when they have to travel longer distances.

“It makes it a lot harder to build a strong community when children are being taken from one place to another,” Platt said. “This is really an unprecedented move before it has been looked at carefully. The communities and families of Chicago do not want it, and they’re not being heard.”

A spokesman for the mayor’s office could not be reached for comment.

The Cook County Bar Association (CCBA) opposes the closure of one of the schools — John Calhoun North Elementary School on the West Side.

Stephen Stern, the owner of the Law Office of Stephen Stern and past president of the bar group, said about a decade ago, the school was selected as CCBA’s “Adopt a School.”

Stern said the school district selected the school for closure based on its underutilization and poor academic performance. But the bar group disagrees, based in part on a review this month conducted by an independent hearing officer.

“This school shouldn’t have even been on the list,” he said.

Stern said the school should qualify for a ranking that deems it a high-performing school based on state tests.

“We think it should be considered a Level 1 school, and the only reason it is not a Level 1 is because of a student who came late in the year, had no preparation and tested poorly.”

Larry R. Rogers Jr. — a partner at Power, Rogers & Smith P.C. and past president of CCBA — said the bar group has sent volunteers to read to students, participate in graduation activities and career-day events.

“The teachers and the community — by way of the Cook County Bar Association at least, if not others — have demonstrated a commitment to the success of the students,” he said.

“When you select and participate in an independent hearing officer process, and they deem this to be a school that should not be closed, to have that disregarded seems to ignore the community’s interests. … It makes the whole process seem to be a farce.”

Becky Carroll, CPS chief communications officer, said in an e-mail that relocating students from Calhoun North to Willa Cather Elementary School will provide them with higher quality education.

“Too many of our children have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed,” she said. “And we owe it to them to change that.”