Schools CEO: Delaying Closures Would be “Criminal”

Meanwhile, parents of special needs students especially concerned about impact transition would have on learning

As the parents of special needs students rallied at Chicago Public Schools headquarters to protest potential school closures, schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was at a west side elementary school proclaiming that delaying such action would be "criminal."

"It is really important for us not to defer these decisions any longer. We've got at least two decades of decay, of children not being able to receive the kind of education that they should," Byrd-Bennett said during a sit-down interview with NBC Chicago at Willa Cather Elementary School.

The school, at 2908 W. Washington Blvd., is an underutilized but high-performing school. In fact, Byrd-Bennett said, the school only has enough students to fill the first floor of the building. The entire second floor remains empty.

Cather won't be closed but will become a "welcoming school," absorbing kids from the schools that will potentially close under CPS' plan. More than 100 schools remain on the chopping block. The final list of schools to be closed is expected by March 31.

Byrd-Bennett said the funds saved by closing schools would be re-invested into the welcoming schools.

"I can commit to parents, as soon as we're done and our list comes out, to describe what every welcoming school would get. In many instances, that could be, based on the need of the school, air conditioned classrooms, a library, a science lab, an art room, a counselor where needed," she said.

Across town, a group of parents protested the closure plan and called on officials to spare those schools with high numbers of special needs students enrolled.

"You can't transition autistic children. They don't take well to change, so change is going to create behavioral problems in the classroom and at home. It's going to make learning hard. What's going to happen to all of the specialists that are needed?" said LaSharra Wilson, whose 10-year-old autistic son attends John M Smyth Elementary School.

Wendy Katten, a spokeswoman for the group calling itself "The Raise Your Hand Coalition," said the district is showing a "callous disregard"for those students.

Another big concern for many parents fighting to keep their schools in tact has been the fear that some students would need to cross potentially-unsafe gang boundaries. Byrd-Bennett said there were plans already in place to expand and enhance the district's "safe passage" program.

"Safety will trump any decision and any recommendation I make," she said. "We're prepared to work with our community to provide the opportunity so we have more -- what I call boots on the ground -- more people who live in the community that are able to safely help our children."

Furthermore, she said most students will travel less than a mile to school. Transportation would be provided to those students who would need to traverse a greater distance.

Byrd-Bennett: Closures Mean Additional Resources for Remaining Schools
Byrd-Bennett: Safety Trumps All Other Decisions
Byrd-Bennett on Potential School Closure Moratorium
Parent: School Closures Especially Difficult for Special Needs Kids
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