Monroe: Trumbull Elementary, Facing Closing, Takes Protest to City Hall, CPS Headquarters

Trumbull Elementary Photo
Melvin Payes, a 7th-grader at Trumbull Elementary School,holds
a sign during Wednesday's rally. (Photo/Joe Ruppel)

Monroe IconBy Joe Ruppel
The Red Line Project

Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2013

 In years past, Michelle Van Pelt spent her spring break buying supplies for her classroom at Trumbull Elementary School in Andersonville.  

Printer ink, laminating sheets, and stock paper ran far over the $250 the school could reimburse. In her first year as a teacher, Van Pelt spent $2,000 out of pocket on supplies for her classroom.  

 “I was fine doing it because I cared about my kids and my room,” she said.

This year, Van Pelt spent her spring break marching shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow Trumbull teachers, aides, parents and students clad in purple-and-gold Trumbull Chargers gear, fighting for the opportunity to continue to teach her class of special education students.

Thousands of demonstrators descended onto Daley Plaza and marched to City Hall and CPS headquarters Wednesday to challenge the Chicago Public Schools plans to slash 53 elementary schools and one high school program from the district. The cuts, which await school board approval, are estimated to affect 30,000 students and 1,000 teachers across Chicago.  

The rally was the culmination to a month of protests throughout the city by the Chicago Teachers Union and other organizations. Speakers at Wednesday's rally included CTU President Karen Lewis and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Police removed 127 protesters from LaSalle Street in front of City Hall, where they staged a sit-in in an organized act of civil disobedience. The protesters were ticketed and released. The teacher's union has been training supporters for acts of civil disobedience for the past month in preparation for the rally.

CPS says it needs to condense the district which has “far more seats that students” to deal with a $1 billion budget deficit.

Maps IconThe Red Line Project's Joe Ruppel mapped CPS school closings by ward. Credits: The City Data Portal and CPS data.

On Wednesday, Van Pelt waved a sign that read “Don’t Punish My SPED Students Because You Can’t Budget” in a packed Daley Plaza that shook Chicago’s Loop with chants of “Save Our Schools.” Six days earlier, a CPS network representative met with staff at Trumbull to officially inform them that the school would be closing.  

The unexpected meeting began at 7:25 a.m., 20 minutes before teachers were required to be at school, meaning some missed the meeting entirely.  

“The network rep said you’re closing and we’re here to support you,” said Bill Giannetos, a language arts teacher at Trumbull.  “But where were they for the past year when we were asking for support?”

The final announcement that Trumbull would close came as shock to many inside the school who thought Trumbull had a strong argument to stay open. The school’s staff says that its high numbers of special-education students, which account for one-third of Trumbull’s enrollment, are responsible for its low utilization rate of 54 percent, which officials used to help determine which schools would close.

Nick Zayas, a physical education teacher and LSC member, said CPS has failed to answer the teachers’ questions about why the school is closing. Trumbull was one of 18 schools that appealed the CPS findings and were the only school to not receive a response. The appeal included Illinois Raise Your Hand For Public Education’s Apples to Apples investigation, which recalculated Trumbull at 88.4 percent utilized.

“Why are we still on the list?” Zayas said. “Show us where our utilization is wrong.”

CPS says it will only close underperforming schools where students can transition to better performing ones nearby. Students from Trumbull (Level 3) will transition to Chappell Elementary (Level 1), McPherson (Level 2) and McCutcheon (Level 2).

However, teachers say performance level isn’t the only factor. Trumbull offers the only vertically integrated special education program on the city’s North Side, meaning students can stay with the program from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade. In her third year teaching her class, Van Pelt said her relationship with her special education students was beginning to blossom.

Many of the special education students have siblings in general education, which Giannetos says creates a unique bond within the school.

“There’s a degree of empathy the general education kids have for special education students that’s very rare,” Giannetos said.  “You see Trumbull in the paper, but you don’t see what Trumbull is.”

 Added Van Pelt: “Special education students have as close to a normal social experience as possible."

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Although the school is closing, Trumbull received three new special education students only a few weeks ago.  

After the meeting, Van Pelt went to the bathroom to cry and call her mother. Four months from tenure, Van Pelt faces an uncertain future, as tenured teachers will be the first placed in new schools. Her healthcare benefits will run out in June and she carries her daughter on her insurance. Still, Van Pelt hopes to stay in CPS and wishes she could remain with her class.

“I love my kids,” Van Pelt said. “If I had my way, I’d stay with them.”

Zayas was at a meeting on healthy school campaigns at a different school when Trumbull staff learned the news.  

“I got a call that we were having a meeting and that we were getting shut down,” Zayas said. “Coming back to school, I just didn’t want to teach.  It was really demoralizing.”

Zayas said in the seven years he has been at Trumbull the physical education program has grown from playing dodgeball everyday to a legitimate program. 

Teachers and community members noted other strides the school has taken, including replacing a lethargic Local School Council with an involved one and hiring a new principal.

“It feels like all the work you’re pouring into this doesn’t matter,” Zayas said.  

Despite the demoralizing thought that Trumbull will be empty next August, Zayas was motivated to march at Wednesday’s rally.

“If they say they’re listening, we want to make it a harder decision to close us,” Zayas said.

Monroe Teachers Photo

Trumbull Elementary School teachers Rose Kory, Michelle Van Pelt and Eduardo Soto
protest school closures in Daley Plaza Wednesday.  (Photo/Joe Ruppel)

At Daley Plaza, David Gonzalez, a Trumbull 8th-grader, and his aunt, Javelina Payes, and cousin, Melvin Payes, held up a long banner that read “Officials Unfit For Duty in Chicago". Michelle Young, President of Action Now, a coalition for public schools, spoke to the crowd.

“Schools are being denied resources in the name of reform,” Young said.  “To Rahm Emanuel: You came in here with a hand shake and we’re sending you out with a boot.”

Gonzalez said Trumbull has “been like a second home” since he enrolled there in first grade. His younger sister Melissa is a special education student and Gonzalez worries that her education will suffer after Trumbull is shut down.

“The program helped Melissa a lot,” said Javelina, Melissa’s aunt. 

Bula Jones attended the rally on behalf of her niece, Briana, a pre-kindergarten student in the special education program at Trumbull. Briana moved to Trumbull a year ago. Jones said she has come a long way from the closed-off student she once was at Gale Elementary in Rogers Park.

“She really likes her new school. It’s all she talks about,” Jones said. Jones added the transition from Gale to Trumbull was difficult on Briana and she worries that another transition could hurt niece’s progress. 

Zayas said students often suffer a 12- to 18-month regression after transitions. 

From Daley Plaza, the protesters took to the streets and marched to City Hall and then onto CPS headquarters.  

Outside, teachers union President Karen Lewis stood in the bed of a red pick-up truck and addressed the crowd. She attacked Emanuel's leadership.

“When you have an unjust leader you must rise up,” Lewis said. “People have the right to the neighborhoods in which they live.”   

Rev. Jesse Jackson also spoke, asking Emanuel to “stop the violence” and “save the children."

As she reflected on the city’s tumultuous year of education debate, Van Pelt sees a possible silver lining in Chicago’s struggle.

“I hope that other cities around Chicago will step back and take a look at how education should be organized,” Van Pelt said.

Rose Kory, a 2nd-grade teacher at Trumbull, said she is trying to keep the next three months of school in perspective.  

“I don’t teach for the board of education,” Kory said. “I teach for the kids in the classroom and they’re still there.”

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