PHOTOS: Protesters march against Chicago school closures - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

PHOTOS: Protesters march against Chicago school closures

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Hundreds of teachers, parents and other opponents marched through downtown Wednesday to protest a plan to close 54 Chicago Public Schools as Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he's done negotiating and is moving on to the "implementation" phase.

Emanuel and schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett say the nation's third-largest district must close dozens of schools because CPS faces a $1 billion budget shortfall and has too many schools that are half-empty and failing academically.

 SEE: CPS protest to disrupt Wednesday rush hour, public hearings begin in April

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson rallied with protesters who carried signs and chanted, "Whose schools? Our schools."

Lewis called the closings "injustices" and said closing the schools isn't a done deal. Lawsuits are planned, she said.

"There are many ways that you can show that this is not over," she told the protesters, whose march filled the street and stretched a full city block. "On the first day of school you show up at your real school. Don't let these people take your school."

SEE: Emanuel says CPS closures will lead to students who can compete for good jobs

Retired teacher Gloria Warner, 62, has two grandchildren who attend Chicago Public Schools. She sat in the street, arm-in-arm with other protesters.

"We need the mayor and CPS to invest in our schools, not take them away," she said. "We need our schools for the safety of our children."

CPS and the mayor say the closings will save the district $560 million over 10 years in capital costs and an additional $43 million per year in operating costs. About 30,000 students -- almost all of them in Kindergarten to eighth grade -- would be affected.

A group of Chicago ministers also went to City Hall on Wednesday to deliver a letter asking Emanuel to halt the plan.

At a press conference on an unrelated topic Wednesday, the mayor said he and Byrd-Bennett already are working out how to carry through on a pledge that every child who is moved ends up at a higher quality school. He said the closings already have been delayed too long.

"Keeping open a school that is falling short year-in and year-out means we haven't done what we are responsible for; not what our parents did for us and what we owe every child in the city of Chicago," Emanuel said.

Critics say the closings disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods and will uproot kids who need a stable and familiar environment in which to learn. They also worry that students will have to cross gang lines to get to a new school, and that the vacated buildings will be blight on already struggling communities.

They will get another chance to argue their case at a series of public meetings that will be scheduled in coming weeks, though the Chicago Board of Education -- whose members are all appointed by Emanuel -- is expected to approve the plan in late May.

Ahead of Wednesday's rally, CTU brass went on the offensive, ramping up the rhetoric by calling CPS' decision to close 54 schools - racist.

"Let me say this," CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey told FOX 32 Political Editor Mike Flannery. "There's a pretty stunning incidence here - 90% of the students affected by this policy, that were eligible for closing, were black."

Some parents are also concerned about the safety of their children, because of the distance some will have to travel to get to their new schools, as well as because of the path they might have to take to get there – across gang territory lines.

CPS said there will be an increase in security to make sure the kids are kept safe. There will also be an upgrade to the Safe Passage program, which employs members of the community who are well versed with the tensions in these neighborhoods to get students to school safely.

Lawndale's Rev. Robin Hood is one of the originators of this program – then called West Side Safe Passage - and spoke to its effectiveness on Wednesday morning. He said it began at Marshall High School, and it currently works with Johnson Elementary School.

He said the entire community will have to come together and make a united effort to keep these young students safe as they commute to their welcoming schools.

"I'm also worried about it," Rev. Hood said. "It's youth's lives in jeopardy every day. Even while school is out their lives are in jeopardy, however we have to get ourselves together, come together as a community and get the right people to work Safe Passage. Parents of the schools, the young men that stand on those corners, those low level drug offenders, there capable of working safe passage. Faith leaders too. We have to be prepared for it."

Rev. Hood said that former felons – the "low level drug offenders" – are employed by Safe passage because they were formerly incarcerated, turned their lives around and got their own kids into school. So they would want other parents' children to get there just as safely as their own.

"I have been an advocate for years on some school closing and we've - we all know that it should happen on some of the schools, but not the way CPS has done this," Ald. Bob Fioretti told FOX 32 News. "But more importantly, when we look at the severe psychological effect on what is going to happen in communities and where they pitted the community against community, parents against parents, I think the trauma that we will feel in the city will be a long lasting effect here."

CPS wants to close failing schools and move the students who attend them to under-utilized schools with better resources.

Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said certain groups of students have gone far too long without access to the same resources as other kids in the district. She and Mayor Rahm Emanuel agree that while these closures will bring a huge change to CPS parents, teachers and students, the kids will benefit in the future.

For example, Emanuel spoke at the Cultural Center Wednesday in defense of the consolidation plan, saying the kids moved to the welcoming schools will be better educated and eventually more competitive candidates for good jobs in Chicago.

The consolidation plan affects around 30,000 students and parents - that's enough to sell out the United Center. The closings would take effect beginning with the start of the 2013-2014 school year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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