WBEZ: Parents: School slated for closure tried to move students out

January 10, 2012

School staff delivered transfer papers over winter break

By Linda Lutton

Parents at a South Side Chicago school say staff tried to get as many as a quarter of students there to transfer out.

The district is proposing to close Guggenheim Elementary school, which district officials have called “the worst elementary school in Illinois.”

Parents say over winter break school staff at Guggenheim Elementary made phone calls and house visits with papers to transfer students out.

“The clerks in the office—three days after Christmas—called me, informed me, ‘Your kids are no longer at Guggenheim. No matter what you want, your kids have been transferred to D.S. Wentworth,'” says Lovely Sardin, who has two children at the school. “‘Are you home now so we can bring transfers?'”

“‘No, I’m not home,’” Sardin says she told the school. “They taped them to my door.”

One of Sardin’s children is in Kindergarten.

“And that was my argument—if you guys said the school is closing in June, my baby’s in Kindergarten. She wants to graduate with her class—I said, ‘Don’t you all have to graduate the 8th graders and the kindergartners?’ They said ‘Actually, we don’t.’

Other parents said they were asked for proof of residency.

Attorney Laurene Heybach was stationed at Guggenheim yesterday, students’ first day back after break. She drove a gray van that serves as the “mobile legal clinic” for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, where she directs the law project.

“We were contacted by parents who were very upset,” says Heybach. “Many of them were confronted by their principal or the front-office staff with statements encouraging or essentially demanding that they transfer their children out of the school now. Of course it’s unlawful for schools to do that and it’s also terrible practice in terms of learning to have children transfer out of a school mid-year,” says Heybach.

Heybach says she knows of 69 students—including nearly the entire population of homeless kids at the school—who got calls or home visits by Guggenheim staff to encourage transfers out. That’s nearly a quarter of the 291 students enrolled.

Grandparent Shirley Mack says she sees the transfers as a “setup” to guarantee the school will close. She says her grandson cried when she told him the school sent his transfer papers.

Outside the school yesterday, Mack stopped to talk to Chicago Teachers Union organizer Matthew Luskin, who was working the sidewalk after parents dropped students off in the morning. The union is organizing to save the school—and teachers’ jobs.

Guggenheim’s closing is “supposed to just be a proposal right now,” Luskin tells Mack. “They’re supposed to be getting input from the community. And then before they hold even one hearing, they start trying to push kids out of the school….”

Guggenheim was slated for closure once before, two years ago. Parents and teachers rallied, sent Valentines to the mayor. Their school got a reprieve and a new principal. But last year, scores plunged. The principal took another job over winter break.

Outside, Guggenheim looks bland, neglected. Rust stains the grates over the second floor windows.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless actually took Chicago Public Schools to court over school closings in 2004, concerned about disrupting homeless students’ schooling. Since then, the Coalition has received the name of every homeless child in schools slated for closure, so they can do outreach.

“We have always felt that pushing kids around from school to school to school is not only not effective, it’s affirmatively harmful to children,” says Heybach. “So when you’ve got schools where you have your neediest learners, it makes the least sense to destabilize the school and to change the setting they are in.”

Chicago Public Schools disagrees fundamentally with that. They say vulnerable students need desperately to be in better performing schools. Some schools are too dysfunctional to fix, officials have argued.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll says it was the parents who asked Guggenheim for transfer information, and the school provided it. She says the school’s goal was to get students into higher performing schools nearer to their homes. She says Guggenheim’s new principal was trying to prevent a mass exodus later on, should the Board of Education vote to close Guggenheim down in February. According to Carroll, the principal believed it would be better for students to transfer during the holiday break. She said no CPS policies had been violated.
Grandmother Shirley Mack says the principal apologized to her Monday and called the transfer a “mess up.”

Heybach says CPS has agreed to compare the list of students enrolled before break with those enrolled now. As of yesterday, the district says all but 10 students were back.