CPS admits delayed response to lead paint found at Bridgeport’s McClellan Elementary School

“The outrage is still pretty strong,” says a parent whose son was in a special education classroom where high lead levels were found.

SHARE CPS admits delayed response to lead paint found at Bridgeport’s McClellan Elementary School
CPS parent Bertha Alderete on Sunday stands outside McClellan Elementary in Bridgeport.

CPS parent Bertha Alderete stands outside McClellan Elementary in Bridgeport. She is among parents angered by the school district’s response to high lead levels found at the school.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools officials admitted they were slow to respond to complaints of peeling lead paint in a special education classroom and two other rooms at a Bridgeport elementary school, delaying for months before following up on testing and addressing the problem.

The school system’s “Department of Facilities acknowledged that there was a delay in its environmental team being notified of these issues,” Carrie Cole, the principal of McClellan Elementary School, wrote to parents Thursday. “They will be implementing a new process to ensure future issues are responded to in a more timely manner.”

Cole’s letter follows the district’s finding last week that there were high levels of lead found in paint at McClellan, 3527 S. Wallace St.

Parents, teachers and other staff have criticized CPS for its slow response after complaints from educators began in October. Initially, district officials denied that they dragged their feet on the matter. 

Lead poisoning in children can be highly damaging to the brain and nervous system, leading to learning difficulties as well as behavioral, speech and hearing problems. The fact that medically fragile, physically and cognitively disabled children were exposed to lead dust from the paint has angered some parents.

“The outrage is still pretty strong,” said Bertha Alderete, a parent and member of the McClellan Local School Council. “What are the solutions moving forward? What are you going to do for all these kids?”

Alderete’s 12-year-old son was in the special education classroom that tested positive for high lead levels. The boy’s heart condition requires a pacemaker and he’s prone to seizures. She had his blood tested for lead this week but she hasn’t received the results yet. Alderete also has two other children at the school, which was built in 1881. 

Now acknowledging the initial lack of attention to the problem, CPS officials say they are addressing it both at McClellan and systemwide. Testing will take place at the Bridgeport school and potentially other schools over the winter break, which runs until Jan. 9.

“Our facilities team has developed an internal process that will ensure a wider scope of managers are alerted to environmental concerns,” CPS spokeswoman Mary Ann Fergus said in a statement to the Sun-Times.

Cole, who has been sending letters to parents and staff, declined to comment.

“I am committed to full transparency surrounding the lead abatement issue,” she said in a newsletter to students’ families last week. 

District officials say they acted quickly following testing to move students out of the special education room, a first-grade classroom and a counselor’s office.

Ald. Nicole Lee (11th), whose ward includes McClellan, took part in a recent meeting between parents and CPS officials and said it left families frustrated that they don’t know how the district is changing its practices to more quickly address environmental and health issues.

“I don’t think any of us got a really straight answer about what is the protocol,” Lee said.

Lee also is asking how the district can help students and staff get tested, possibly at the school. McClellan administrators sent out some information to parents about places to get blood work. The Chicago Department of Public Health offers a lead hotline at (312) 747-5323.

The district is in talks with the health department “as we explore all supports and resources,” Fergus said.

Lee said she’s glad that CPS is now addressing the issue but questions whether the district, which committed to testing all classrooms and common areas at McClellan, can resolve the issues at the school over the two-week break.

“God willing, they don’t find a lot,” Lee said. “My concern is will the break be enough time?”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust. 

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