"I'm proud that this Neighborhood Schools Fair came from neighborhood parents— from neighborhood moms. And that they invited people from all over the city to be involved."— Kim Bowsky, Chicago Public Schools teacher
You might not associate colorful balloons and a room full of school displays with a bold act of resistance, but that is what happened at Roberto Clemente High School on a gray drizzly November day in Chicago. It was the Neighborhood Schools Fair, a testament to the love that Chicago has for its neighborhood schools and their critical importance to the city.
It’s been a tough year for the education justice movement in Chicago. A lot of heartbreaks. A lot of tears. Fifty schools closed. Massive layoffs of teachers and other education workers. Sit-ins and multiple arrests. Parents frantic about their children's’ safety going to school. Deep emotional ties among favorite teachers and their students broken. A steady stream of insults and lies coming from City Hall and the Chicago Public Schools(CPS) top brass.
The movement really needed affirmation. Something positive and joyful. Thankfully a small circle of activist women who call themselves “The Badass Moms”, or BAM, got together and hatched the idea of a one day exposition where neighborhood schools could set up displays, hold workshops and talk about their successes and their challenges.
Rousemary Vega, one of the BAM’s, told me that the goal was to create a web of relationships among neighborhood schools to build for a better educational future. This web would cross traditional racial and neighborhood lines in one of the most segregated cities in the USA, where neighborhood insularity and distrust of “outsiders” is the stuff of legend.
The Fair was not sanctioned or supported by CPS, who is hell-bent on privatization via charters and turnarounds. At first there was fear that neighborhood schools might be afraid to participate in such an event, given the long history of CPS ruthless retaliation.
But in the end 60 schools participated, an act of moral courage by principals and school workers whose jobs can hang by a thread in the repressive totalitarian structure of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).
The importance of neighborhood schools in working class communities
I spoke to a number of individuals at the Fair and asked them why neighborhood schools were so important, especially in already distressed working class communities
Valerie Leonard, a West Side Chicago activist with the Lawndale Alliance explains:
“The importance of neighborhood schools is how they keep communities together. More and more we are seeing an attack on our neighborhood schools in North Lawndale. At one point almost every school in North Lawndale was a neighborhood school and now we are down to about 1/3 AUSL and charter schools. We are seeing less accountability to the parents and less accountability to the community.”
Sherise McDaniel believes that neighborhood schools build community. A parent activist at the North Side Manierre School, she was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that challenged the massive school closings because they discriminated on the basis of race and disability. Although the suit was thrown out, it raised important issues that remain unaddressed by CPS.
“I’m at a school that extends out to the community, to the families, the kids. Everyone gets involved. We go there after school to celebrate special holidays. The principal cares. He gets food boxes together for those who need help…All of us don’t have the money to send our kids to private schools. We need these places. Kids shouldn’t have to go across town to go to school.”
Chris Ball, a parent at Oscar Meyer School and a member of the education advocacy groups, More Than A Score and Raise Your Hand explains that living close to a school means more parental involvement, a key factor in the success of any school.
The struggle to defend Chicago’s neighborhood schools
Earlier in 2013 CPS closed 50 neighborhood schools, mostly in impoverished African American and Latino neighborhoods where disinvestment has already taken a heavy toll. Thousands of parents, teachers, students and concerned individuals registered their opposition to the proposed closings in a series of public hearings.
I went to a number of those gatherings.
Parents described how they attended Local School Council meetings late into the night, determined to create the best possible school environment for the children. This was often after a day spent at exhausting blue collar labor.
I heard from teachers and parents who spent many hours writing grant proposals for cool programs in science, art, music, writing, sports and other innovative initiatives to compensate for meager CPS funding.
I heard how people with strong neighborhood ties going back generations joined with newcomers to partner their schools with NASA, the Chicago Symphony, the Old Town School of Folk Music, the Joffre Ballet, the Lyric Opera, Roosevelt University, University of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum and more.
None of this heartfelt dedication meant a damned thing to CPS.
As I walked around the Neighborhood School Fair I could see how surviving neighborhood schools had students building robots, doing complex science experiments, studying world languages, creating innovative art and storytelling projects, researching social justice issues in their communities, becoming engaged in all kinds of music and so much more. Exactly the kind of rich exciting learning that education is supposed to be about.
This is exactly the kind of education that CPS seems determined to stamp out with their school closings, rigid scripted curricula, endless standardized tests, stultifying methods of data collection and their highly politicized methods of evaluating both teachers and students. All of this flowing from powerful corporations dead set on privatization, especially in urban working class environments.
Educators fear for the future as privatization grows
Erica Clark of Parents 4 Teachers believes that CPS is engaging in a deliberate attempt to destabilize neighborhood schools and push people toward charters, selective enrollment schools and magnet schools that do not accept all children. This is often presented as an example of parental “choice”, but as Clark points out:
"Neighborhood schools are not on a level playing field in terms of funding; in terms of support from CPS and in terms of their ability to promote themselves and attract new students.”
Clark also believes that neighborhood schools or community schools as they are also called, are probably the most democratic institutions we have:
“They accept everyone, each and every child, regardless of race, class, whether the children speak English or need language services, whether the kids have special needs or whether they have disciplinary problems.”
Steve Serikaku, a retired CPS school administrator, sees a two tier system of education developing where students who are traumatized or have learning disabilities have the fewest options:
“What worries me is that they are opening up charter schools that don’t necessarily provide a better education. The students that are the most difficult to educate are being kept out of charter schools and so they are concentrated in the neighborhood school. It serves two purposes and shows how much "better" the charter school is. It’s like segregation of a different kind.”
Kim Bowsky of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the CTU Black Caucus and the Coalition of Rank and File Educators (CORE) elaborated on the theme of democracy and what it takes for democracy to be successful:
“Public education means access for all. We don’t mean just access to a building, but access to the ideas of democracy; meaning you have to have people who are global thinkers, be able to deal with diverse ideas and able to work out education and cognitive problems in a safe environment…by turning our backs on neighborhood schools, we’d be turning our backs on what we want for humanity.”
Public education as a democratic right
The USA has had close to a full formal democracy since the triumph of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Citizens, (with some state exceptions: like having a prison record) have the right to vote and to join social movements. But formal democracy alone does not guarantee that people will make wise choices.
As Kim Bowsky points out so eloquently, a successful democracy requires people who have been educated to study, think and question so they are not afraid to confront complex problems. It means creating the possibility of rich full lives where people can pursue cultural and leisure interests. It means having the tools to challenge exploitation in whatever form it takes. For democracy to succeed, human minds must be liberated from the oppressive aspects of society. Democracy requires education for liberation.
The first attempts at education for democracy came early in our nation’s history. Labor unions in the North demanded free public education so that their members could fight for better working conditions as well as a genuine life outside of work. Meanwhile in the South slaves secretly organized reading groups to teach literacy as part the struggle against human bondage. These efforts created what were essentially underground neighborhood schools.
In 1920’s Chicago there was a clearly drawn class divide over public education. The city’s Commercial Club wanted narrow vocational education and a minimum of taxes on business. The then powerful Chicago Federation of Labor agreed that vocational education was a good idea, but also wanted a much wider curriculum. Labor saw both the possibilities of social change as well class mobility in an broadly educated working class.
Beginning in 1960’s Chicago, African Americans and their allies battled to create a school system that was based on racial justice despite strong pushback by the Chicago corporate elite and other racist whites who preferred segregation and inequality.
My introduction to education for liberation
In 1975 I was hired to teach English and history at an adult education center on Chicago’s West Side. The school mostly served the West Side though any adult could enroll. Many of our students were on public aid and we provided them with an actual high school diploma once they completed their coursework.
They were some of the most dedicated and motivated students I have ever worked with.
The school was unabashedly radical and used the education for liberation model pioneered by Brazilian educator Paolo Freire. Students played an important role in the governance of the school. We wanted them to gain self confidence, to study, to think, to imagine, and to cooperate in creating a better school experience.
We wanted them to graduate with the tools to transform their world, no matter what career goals their education was furthering. What was the point of preparing students for a status quo of racism, gender oppression and poverty? We wanted them to take both democracy and liberation to heart.
The city authorities eventually closed us down in a particularly nasty fashion despite protests from the community and even some politicians. Education can be a threat to the wealthy and powerful when taken seriously. It was my first school closing. It was a heartbreaker.
Last winter on a cold clear night in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood I watched a young woman come to the microphone and try to save her neighborhood school. The church was packed with people who came to oppose the massive school closing plan that CPS had concocted. She was speaking on behalf of the respected Mathew Henson School where the school motto was “Education is liberation! Peaceful! Positive! Productive!”. There was that word again. Liberation. Henson was among the 50 schools that were eventually closed.
Neighborhood schools and education for liberation
“Our struggle is against systems of power that have been historically used to deny, regulate, and prohibit access to the most basic human rights that should be granted freely to members of society regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or religious belief. We accept the reality that such struggle will require sacrifice from all involved.”—- from the mission statement of Social Justice High School
Among the people I talked to at the Neighborhood Schools Fair was Amy Livingstone,a first year teacher at Social Justice High School in Little Village, better known as SOJO. She described SOJO as:
”…a place where students can really use what they are learning in class to go and better their communities and return to deal with the different issues they are facing a SOJO. SOJO lets students learn those concepts and critically assess them and then take them back to help them in their own lives.”
SOJO was the product of a long battle by residents of the largely Mexican working class community of Little Village.
Earlier I had spent time at the North-Grand High School display where students demonstrated their engineering capabilities with whirring robots that the students had constructed. This was an example of North-Grand ‘s pre-engineering program which is designed for students to “solve real world problems” and “make meaningful and pioneering contributions to their community and beyond.”
Phil Cantor, a member of both CORE and Teachers for Social Justice was on hand to talk to parents.
According to student Saul Rodriquez North-Grand gives students a chance to sample a variety of engineering challenges, "I like hands-on building classes, and I think this was a great opportunity to start doing that. It's a great way to expand my mind in engineering."
North-Grand is located in the Humboldt Park neighborhood and 95% of its largely African American and Latino student population is low income.
Two different neighborhood schools. Two different approaches to opening students’ minds to the possibilities of positive change for themselves and their communities. Two different approaches to education for liberation. But the neighborhood school model can only provide templates for the liberation of human minds. It is up to fallible human beings to make that liberation happen.
Across Chicago, neighborhood schools vary greatly as they grapple with the problems of poverty and racism that affect the majority of Chicago students. Some have weak leadership resulting in chaotic learning environments. Some are virtual dictatorships run by fear and intimidation.
The “fear and intimidation model” was even apparent at the Neighborhood Schools Fair where several teachers were reluctant to be quoted, nervously referring me to the school principal instead.
The best neighborhood schools, those that have come closest to the ideal of education for liberation, actively involve students, parents, teachers and the community. The Chicago Teachers Union under the leadership of CORE advocated for this in its detailed proposal “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve”.The respected Chicago school advocacy group Designs for Change has solid research that backs up the success of those kinds of neighborhood schools.
But both the CTU proposal and the Designs for Change research were met by silence from the top. Fear and intimidation is how the CPS leadership prefers to work, with the full backing of Chicago’s financial elite.
Public education has always been contested terrain. According to Dorothy Shipps, author of School Reform Corporate Style: Chicago 1880-2000:
“To a remarkable degree, Chicago’s corporate leaders have shaped the city’’s schools while constructing its economic and downtown development priorities, it’s response to racial segregation, and even its urban mythology…If corporate power was instrumental in creating urban public schools and has had a strong hand in their reform for a century, then why have those schools failed urban children so badly?”
Chicago’s corporate elite has always fought for a narrow top down authoritarian approach to working class education, the kind of education they would never permit for their own children. Mayor Emanuel’s children go the Chicago Lab School with its rich innovative curriculum, where standardized tests are rare and which has a unionized faculty.
Now it seems the corporate elite has grown weary of trying to dominate public education in the face of stubborn resistance by those who fight for quality working class education. The elite want a private system of charters and turnaround schools that don’t have Local School Councils and CTU members, all the better to gain the more complete control that has always eluded them. And according to public school advocate Diane Ravitch, such control could be very profitable.
Sherise McDaniel of Manierre School sure thinks it’s all about the money:
“They want to privatize everything. They want those charter schools. I really feel like the Mayor wants to break the union. I think it’s all about unionbusting. Money for friends. Money for friends’ contracts…”
I’ve heard similar things from working class people around the city. It’s about driving out Black and Latino working class people. It’s a land grab. It’s about destabilizing communities for gentrification and real estate profits.
I would add another reason. The Chicago corporate elite is terrified by the prospect of a working class that has been educated to liberate itself and discover its power to shape society for the greater good.
What would a Neighborhood Schools Fair look like in a better world? A world where teachers, students, parents and community work with local administrators to shape the best possible neighborhood school policies. Where an elected school board and downtown central administration works hard to see that all schools get an abundance of resources and moral support. Where young people across the city are excited to go to school because it fires their imagination, their creativity and their desire to learn.
Just let that sink in for a while, because that’s the world the Badass Moms of the 2013 Neighborhood Schools Fair are working towards.
Education is liberation! Peaceful! Positive! Productive!…
Bob "BobboSphere" Simpson is a retired high school teacher with experience both on the West and South Sides of Chicago.
“Moms Organize Fair Touting Neighborhood School Extracurriculars” by Quinn Ford
“The West Side of Chicago says NO! to school closings” by Bob Simpson
School reform, Corporate Style: Chicago 1880-2000 by Dorothy Shipps
The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve by the CTU Quest Center
The Big Picture: School-Initiated Reforms, Centrally Initiated Reforms, and Elementary School Achievement in Chicago (1990 to 2005) by Designs for Change
Wall Street's Investment in School Reform by Diane Ravitch
Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the rise of Chicago’s 99% by Kari Lydersen
Interviews with Neighborhood Schools Fair participants conducted by Bob Simpson