CPS Parents, Students Fear School Closings Will Bulldoze Their Community

By Samantha Abernethy in News on Apr 5, 2013 10:20PM

On Thursday I accompanied lawmakers and members of the press on a bus tour led by the Chicago Teachers Union through parts of Englewood and North Lawndale. The bus made its first stop at Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, due to be closed this year, and they showed students will walk past a charter school and across the railroad tracks to get to their new school in the fall. The ended with a mile-long stroll past the many abandoned buildings in North Lawndale and Garfield Park.

The tour was designed to confirm adults' fears of what children will see when they walk to their new school. It also reinforced fears of what children see now when they walk to their current school. We don't normally get too personal in expressing our views on Chicagoist, but after Thursday's tour, I've decided to publish the following essay, which I wrote and performed at the Paper Machete live magazine at the Green Mill on Saturday, March 30.

On March 21, Chicago Public Schools announced 54 elementary and middle schools would be closed and 61 buildings would be left vacant. Plenty of schools have been closed before, but this is an exceptionally large number unparalleled by any school district. The plan affects 30,000 students, not to mention countless teachers, principals and parents.

The announcement wasn't a surprise after months of speculation and dozens of community meetings. That didn't make it any less infuriating for those affected, and on Wednesday a sizable group of protesters gathered in Daley Plaza.

Now Chicago police downplayed it, saying about 700 to 900 people protested school closings in Daley Plaza on Wednesday. And of course the Chicago Teachers Union played it up saying about 5,000 to 6,000 people were protesting. That's quite a difference.

Protesters held signs calling Emanuel racist or Mayor One Percent, or even simply saying, “Rahm Sucks.”

The mayor's perceived indifference to public opinion wasn't helped by the fact he was out of town on vacation when the school closings list was announced... and then he waited days to defend the decision.

Schools close all the time in Chicago and nationwide, and it's not a popular decision. When Michelle Rhee served as DC Public Schools Chancellor, she announced a plan to shut down 23 schools in 2008. In the 2010 education documentary “Waiting for Superman” she said, “If you want to quickly become the most unpopular person in a city, you just tell someone you're going to close down *A* school, much less twenty-three.”

CPS and the mayor's office say the move is necessary to break children out of underperforming schools and to consolidate underutilized facilities to cut costs. In the negotiations Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett promised schools would only be closed if the children could be sent to better schools. Well, a report by the Sun-Times showed that one-third of the schools closing will send students to schools with similar rankings. At least eight schools are sending their kids to schools with lower test scores.

The concern isn't just based on education, though. After 506 murders in 2012, the city is struggling to rein in violence. Closing schools disrupts children's educations, but also their routines. Something as simple as crossing another street can put a child in a dangerous situation in a different turf. A shakeup in the schools can coincide with a shakeup in gang violence.

In 2008, there were 513 murders in Chicago, a significant uptick of 65 more than the year before. As a graduate student at Northwestern in 2009, I interviewed Wesley Skogan from the Institute for Policy Research. He said, “Gang homicide is to a certain extent caused by the disruptions of the [drug] markets and in the stable gang relationships caused by reconstituting schools, knocking down CHA high rises, and [police] attacking street corner drug markets.”

Those reconstituted schools were part of Mayor Daley's mid-2000s renaissance initiative that merged several troubled high schools into a few really troubled high schools.

NPR's This American Life recently examined the effect of violence on Chicago's Harper High School in West Englewood. Linda Lutton reports that the area around Harper was once almost solely controlled by the Gangster Disciples. Gangs don't operate that way anymore, in part because “Chicago police have been so effective at locking up the big gang leaders that the hierarchy has crumbled.”

Now there are more than 15 gang factions in Harper's attendance area. Lutton says the gangs are determined by geography and kids aren't joining a gang, so much as they're assigned to one.

Lutton asked, “What if I'm a kid and I really don't want any part of this gang stuff? How can I avoid it?” A police officer responded, “It's not gonna happen.”

Last week Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle told Mick Dumke at the Chicago Reader, "You know, schools are community anchors. They're social centers. They're part of a community's identity. And often kids go half a dozen blocks and they're in different gang territory.”

Director Davis Guggenheim said in “Waiting for Superman” that “For generations, experts tended to blame failing schools on failing neighborhoods. But reformers have begun to believe the opposite: that the problems of failing neighborhoods might be blamed on failing schools.”

In her interview with the Chicago Reader, County Board President Preckwinkle also wondered why prisons are packed and schools are closing. Why, instead of investing in education, money pours into the prison system.

Harvard professor Deborah Prothrow-Stith approaches violence as a public health issue. In a speech at Northwestern Law School last week, she compared violence to lung cancer. It's more effective to stop people from smoking than it is to throw money at buying equipment to cure lung cancer. In the same way, preventing violence is more effective at, ya know, preventing violence from happening, than it is to throw people in jail with increased penalties.

She said, “You can't police your way to prevention.”

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart reported recently that the county jail is nearly filled to capacity, just in time for the usual crime surge of the summer months. Sheriff Dart was an outspoken opponent of Mayor Emanuel's plan to close mental health centers last year, estimating one-third of the jail’s population suffers from mental illness. He said, “when we don't fund services ... They end up in my jail."

Growing up surrounded by this violence, students have been traumatized. They need those mental health services. They're living in fear. How can they learn algebra, if they're worried about whether they'll get beat up on the way home from school? That's how kids give up on school.

Every week or so, the mayor's office sends out a press release to brag about how they've lured some business to move its headquarters into the city. Earlier this week he said, “Illinois has what it takes for businesses to grow.” There is funding, there are loans. He's negotiated This week he also announced the city would receive a federal loan to fix up the riverwalk to lure in more tourists.

That's job creation. But you know what else is job creation? Hiring more teachers, social workers and therapists by funding schools and violence prevention programs. Find a way to lure children to schools with more programs, and the future of the city will be as secure as their education. Right now the mayor's office is running some sort of kickstarter-type campaign to fund a new after-school basketball program. Perhaps they should try a kickstarter for the riverwalk instead.

Now I'm not saying this to criticize Mayor Emanuel. He's not the malicious villain portrayed on picket signs downtown. I don't doubt that he believes that this will really help Chicago's children, that it will strengthen the school system, that it will strengthen communities, that it might even stabilize the city's bottomline. Hell, it might even work.

As the outrage on school closings continues, he's standing his ground. He says he is done negotiating. He made a few concessions, like agreeing not to repeat the mistake of consolidating high schools. It's not like Emanuel was secretly bulldozing an airport in the middle of the night like that other certain mayor we know. But it doesn't stop parents, teachers and especially children from feeling like they've been bulldozed just the same.