DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Chicago's plan to shut down 54 schools would be the largest school closure in U.S. history. And it has taken a step closer to becoming a reality. After a month of public hearings, officials will hand over reports to the school board with recommendations for how many of the schools in question should be closed. As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, parents, educators and students in Chicago say they are not ready to quit fighting for their schools.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: There's been anger, tears and questions when it comes to the Chicago Public Schools', or CPS's, proposal to shut down 54 schools. So for weeks, people got just two minutes to either vent or make a case at a marathon series of hearings.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Your kid's school not getting closed. I'm heated.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It's like you're taking away my family.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Why is CPS closing schools and putting innocent children at risk?
CORLEY: Three hundred hours of public testimony. Most of the proposed closures are schools on Chicago's West and South sides - mostly African-American areas which saw big population losses over the last decade. Administrators and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel say the targeted schools are under-utilized and need to close, especially since the district faces a billion dollar deficit.
Even so, when Alderman Bob Fioretti showed up at a public hearing for Victor Herbert Elementary, he called the entire process unfair.
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ALDERMAN BOB FIORETTI: I don't see any board members here. I don't see the mayor here. If they would have come to some of these hearings they would have had a different decision on these closures. Because the reason for these closings keep changing. Is it underutilization, under enrollment? Is it grade policy? What is the reason? We have gone down the wrong path with this meat cleaver approach in closures.
CORLEY: About 30 percent of the students at Herbert are enrolled in special education. Fioretti calls the school a bright light in an area struggling with skyrocketing unemployment, illegal drug trafficking and gang fights. The head of the Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, was unavailable for comment. But on a website video she defended the reworking of the country's third largest public education system, saying closing schools and merging some with others would benefit students.
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BARBARA BYRD-BENNETT: What we must do is to ensure that the resources that some kids get, that all kids get. And those resources include libraries and access to technology and science labs and art classrooms.
CORLEY: That's also the mantra of Chicago's mayor when it comes to school closings, but it doesn't convince Rosa Clark Scott, a teacher's assistant at Herbert for 28 years.
ROSA CLARK SCOTT: It doesn't add up. Mayor Rahm Emanuel came on TV and said we want to promise everyone a quality education. We want to give them computer labs and science labs. We already have that.
CORLEY: And in a city which has seen extremely high numbers of gang-related killings each year, safety is a top concern. Opponents of the closures argue the plan puts students at risk by forcing them to travel through multiple gang boundaries. School leaders say they're expanding a Safe passage program which provides escorts to students.
But Simone Jackson, a parent with two daughters at Herbert, is skeptical. She's seen how Safe Passages operates in other neighborhoods.
SIMONE JACKSON: And they have the parents standing out with their vests but when the gun shots and the drug boys tell them to leave, they be the first ones gone.
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DEBBY POPE: Take some flyers.
CORLEY: Outside the school board headquarters, Debby Pope with the Chicago Teachers Union is passing out flyers. Pope says the hearings may be over but the school decision isn't final yet.
POPE: As far as we're concerned, this fight is too important to be over now.
CORLEY: The union plans to hold several marches later this month for what it calls Education Justice in Chicago before the vote to close the schools. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.