• Chicago schools transition — smooth or rocky?
     | December 09,2013
    AP file Photo

    Luka Riner, 4, looks through books in his new classroom as preschool teacher Sharon Hogan watches in Chicago in September. Luka, born with a genetic defect called Trisomy 9 syndrome, needs physical, speech and occupational therapy.

    CHICAGO — Devion Allen peers wistfully through a door window at the school he used to attend. Those who live outside his gritty, violence-plagued neighborhood might dismiss this towering brick building as just another failing urban school. But to the eighth-grader, the school across the street from his mom’s subsidized apartment was a haven — “like a family,” he says.

    To the administrators of Chicago Public Schools, though, the neighborhood school was underutilized and underperforming — one of 47 public schools that closed in the city in June, most of them in high-poverty neighborhoods with mostly minority populations. Two more will be phased out by the end of the school year.

    Allen left his school for the last time last summer, holding back tears as chaos and protests ensued. From that point on, the school, formerly known as Lafayette Elementary, became a symbol in a citywide and even national debate about the future course of public education.

    Soon, officials say, the empty building will likely house an arts high school operated as a contract school, publicly funded but privately run.

    “It’s not fair,” Allen said. He and many of his friends, meanwhile, have been shifted to a school about a half mile away, one that is smaller than their old school and jammed with twice as many students as it had last school year.

    Officials have dubbed it a “welcoming school,” the name given to the Chicago schools that have taken in students from closed buildings.

    The idea was to send displaced students to schools with better test scores, combining forces to give them a better shot at a good education.

    That appears to be happening at some of the combined schools, where those involved say they’re making the best of a challenging situation.

    “It’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK,” grandparent Dexter Leggin tells students and parents when he works at an after-school program at Melody Elementary, a welcoming school on the city’s West Side.

    To lighten the mood and promote unity, he’s taken to calling the school “Melano” — a combination of Melody and Delano Elementary, the closed school. In this instance, the school took the Melody name because it was the higher-performing school, but kept the Delano building because it was a better fit. Leggin says that arrangement has helped.

    Overall, Chicago Public Schools officials say the transition has been going smoothly and insist that, as they’d hoped, most students are in a better situation than they were before.

    “We’ve kept that promise,” said Denise Little, who leads the team that oversees the district’s principals.

    Some teachers and parents at welcoming schools, however, tell a very different story. They complain that overcrowding and an overall lack of support is making the transition rough.

    The Chopin School, where Allen attends, is so packed that the staff there has had to give up the very amenities this transition was supposed to provide — the computer lab, the library and art and music rooms. The school’s psychologist, occupational therapist and speech pathologist also are working in windowless, unvented spaces that were formerly storage closets. Sometimes, students are tested there.

    Special education students also have suffered, say teachers and student advocates. At least one school that has dozens of new special ed students, the Courtenay Language Arts Center, has yet to set up a behavioral health team to assess those children’s needs in a faster, more organized way, staff members say.

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