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April 13, 2013

Frustrated Canter supporters argue against middle school's closing at 2nd public meeting

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) representatives again fielded questions, complaints, and outcry from community members in the second and final community meeting regarding the announcement to close Miriam G. Canter Middle School in Kenwood.

“For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Mayor and CEO would suggest closing a safe school in a safe neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago,” said Beth Herring, a parent at Bret Harte Elementary, one of the schools set to receive Canter students.

The community members mostly blamed Mayor Rahm Emanuel for the imminent closing of Canter and 53 other CPS schools, a decision they saw as rash and ill-informed.

“My anger is not directed at you,” Herring said, pointing at the CPS representatives present at the meeting. “I hold Mayor Emanuel responsible for these reckless, unprecedented, and poorly planned school closings.”

“This is not ‘for the children,’ as Emanuel says. 35 kids in a class, for the children. Separate them from their friend group and making them question their own place of belonging, for the children. You think we’re dumb, Emanuel?” said Angela Paranjape, whose husband is a longtime Canter teacher.

Eileen Wasserman, a longtime Hyde Park resident whose daughters attended CPS schools, alleged that “this administration does not care for children.”

“Rahm Emanuel, what is he—an emperor?” she asked.

Many of the speakers at tonight’s meeting, held at Kenwood Academy, expressed frustration toward its format, which limited each speaker to two minutes and was meant for community members to merely raise their concerns rather than to receive direct answers from the three CPS representatives present at the meeting.

“We’re not here to answer your questions. We’re here to get feedback and take it back to [CPS CEO] Barbara Byrd,” said Erick Pruit, deputy chief of schools, one of the CPS representatives facilitating the discussion.

“You can’t even talk to us—I think that’s the craziest thing,” Wasserman said.

In addition to their skepticism about the meeting itself, many community members questioned the efficacy of CPS’s pledge that all “welcoming schools,” including Bret Harte and Ray Elementary, would receive improvements such as air-conditioning and other technology and security upgrades in order to accommodate students from “sending schools” like Canter.

Paranjape cited the air-conditioning as an example of “the things they’re using to bribe the schools.”

“Kozminski [Community Academy] was promised AC. They never received that AC,” she said.

Responding to audience members chanting “Speak!”, Fourth Ward Alderman Will Burns (B.A. ’95, M.A. ’98) took to the microphone, blaming state and federal fiscal woes for the CPS closings and funding cuts.

“Illinois has cut funding for education, money that we depend in Chicago so that we can provide high-quality education for our children,” he said. “The federal government has not lived up to its responsibility. It is in this milieu that these cuts are happening. The crisis does not come from the city of Chicago.”

These remarks drew agitation from audience members, who frequently tried to interrupt him.

“You asked me to speak, and I am going to finish my point,” he said.

When asked by an audience member what he plans to do to contest the CPS decision, Burns stressed his involvement in community organizations and his work to keep Reavis and Robinson Elementary Schools open when they were slated for closure.

Frustrated with Burns’ remarks, some of the speakers addressed him directly, including Canter social studies and language arts teacher Howard Fishbein.

“You can work with Rahm Emanuel, but you can also stand up to him once in a while,” he said to Burns.

Other speakers stressed the important role Canter plays as a transition between elementary and high school and as a safe haven.

Patrick Papson, a teacher at Canter, noted that many students come from unsafe neighborhoods in order to attend “a safe school in a safe neighborhood.”

“Kids who are in seventh and eighth grade, who at this point, their lives shift. Very easily, they can fall into the trap of gangs. We’re able to, in this school, really reach kids,” he said. “I honestly believe that we save a lot of kids, or at least help them prepare for high school.”

“I think it’s important for them to have the opportunity to move from one element to another. It’s really, really hard on the students when you close it,” said Stephanie Franklin, a retired high school teacher and community member.

She was also concerned that community members were not consulted in the CPS decision.

“Canter parents, were you surveyed before they decided your future?”  she asked the audience members. “No!” many responded.

Community members pledged to continue advocating for Canter’s survival in anticipation of the final CPS public hearing on April 17, when CPS will officially decide which schools will close at the end of the year.

Evan Canter, the son of the school’s namesake, spoke of his mother’s legacy.

“Her concern was for the kids, and you must keep that in mind no matter where you end up. The Canters are proud of what the Canter school has become, and we urge you to continue to fight.”

“This is a community that transcends itself. This is much bigger than some mass CPS plan,” Paranjape said at the end of the meeting.

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