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Irwin Parents Don't Want School To Become Office Space

Wigena Tirado align=left

CMS held its last forum on closing schools and changing boundaries last night. The district wants to close about a dozen schools and move those students to other schools. Many of the remaining buildings would be demolished or mothballed. Last night, Smith Language Academy was the focus of the discussion. Under the plan, Harding University High would close and Smith students would move in. That's received a lot of attention. But a similar thing would happen to Irwin Avenue Elementary, only the people moving in would be administrators. That's not going over so well with parents at Irwin. Irwin Avenue Elementary is a good-looking school. The brick building with breezy hallways and big classrooms is nestled beneath the skyscrapers of uptown Charlotte. It's also part of Charlotte's history. The old Harding High School was located here. This is where a teenager named Dorothy Counts walked through a crowd of hecklers to become the first African American to integrate a Charlotte school. "This will be great for the kids. Why do the adults need it? They have the rest of Charlotte," says Irwin parent Wigena Tirado. Her son is a fourth-grader at Irwin. She moved here from Buffalo ten years ago around the time when that city began discussing closing schools. Tirado was excited when she found Irwin, but five years later she hears it might close to make room for administrators. "Oh, I was hot. I thought that must be a joke it can't be for real," says Tirado. "I was thinking, 'No, they can't close the school because my son goes there. But then when I researched some more, it kept coming up. I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, they're going to close my school for an office building. What?'" "It's a large elementary school with large, open classrooms. They kind of lend themselves very easily to repurposing as open office space," says CMS planner Dennis LaCaria. You can imagine his explanation doesn't go over well with Irwin parents. But he says there's more to it. The school has classrooms to spare. The district estimates it could save $900,000 a year by moving offices to Irwin and sending kids to neighboring elementary schools. Those in the IB program would get preference to go to any magnet within their home school attendance area. CMS would start a new IB program at Blythe elementary in Huntersville. CMS could then move staff currently housed in two leased spaces and a couple old schools to the Irwin building. There could even be room for staff from the education center uptown, a building that will be transferred to the county some time in the next few years. LaCaria says that savings would help the district hold on to more teachers But if CMS didn't need an administrative center, would it look at closing Irwin? "It's hard to say now," says LaCaria. "Would we have probably proposed some other programming? That's possible." But CMS also points to Irwin's test scores as a reason for closure. Last year, the school had a 61 percent pass rate. That's by no means good, but it's a 16 point jump in just two years and parents feel like the school is making a lot of progress. Tirado actually chose the school for her son who she calls 'my Little Einstein', knowing most of the kids come from low-income families. He's in the newly accredited IB program there. So Tirado doesn't like it when she hears administrators refer to Irwin's poor performance. "I felt kind of upset. They say, 'Look at these scores, they're low,'" says Tirado. "Okay, my child is very smart. I wouldn't put him in a school that didn't do well. When I came down here I saw the schools that didn't do well. This wasn't it." Fired-up Irwin parents have shown up to community forums, had CMS planners come talk to them, sent letters to CMS board members, and called them. It's a troop of parents that has grown stronger over the past three years as the school has improved. After a Parent-Teacher Association meeting this week, a handful of moms got together to strategize how to keep Irwin open. They have just another few days to make their point that Irwin is a better place for students than administrators. The board plans to vote on Tuesday.