“At times like this when CPS is making an attempt to close the most schools at one time in the nation, I don’t think you need another Columbine or Connecticut or another suicide because of bullying.” Sherise McDaniel, Chicago Public School parent
Corporate America has declared war on public education by closing schools, privatizing schools, gaining control over curriculum, imposing a barrage of hi-stakes testing, limiting citizen involvement and attacking teachers unions. The worst attacks are against working class education.
Corporate America sees no reason to educate working class students beyond the most basic level. They are seen as nothing more than future low paid drones in a brutal dog-eat-dog-cat-eat-mouse economy. The war against public education is a class war being waged by the wealthy against a growing working class resistance.
It is a New Civil War.
Chicago has become a major front in this New Civil War. Every war has its battlefields, but in Chicago the New Civil War battlefields don’t have names like Bull Run, Antietam, Gettsyburg or Fort Pillow. Instead they have names like Henson, Chalmers, Paderewski, Bethune, Pope, Manierre and Stewart. These are just a few of the Chicago public schools slated for closings and school actions.
The term “New Civil War” is not intended to be a metaphor.
The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) school closings, consolidations and turnarounds have already cost human casualties with actual deaths and injuries. Chicago is a deeply divided city where gang and turf battles are grim realities in many of its working class communities. In this war on public education, CPS is taking full advantage of these tragic schisms, making the defense of public schools even more difficult.
Across the city with the help of organizations like the Chicago Teachers Union and the Grassroots Education Movement, thousands of Chicagoans have declared their opposition to the assault on their childrens’ education.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is in full control of the public schools and enthusiastically represents corporate interests. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett of the Chicago Public Schools(CPS), answers directly to Rahm.
CPS currently is proposing 61 school actions involving a total of 133 schools. Students from schools that are closed must go to what CPS calls “welcoming schools”, whence the figure of 133 affected schools. Most of these proposed school actions would take place in working class neighborhoods of color, many of them predominantly African-American. Some of these school actions could have deadly consequences.
Does Rahm Emanuel want bloodshed along Division Street?
“We live in a city of Capulets and Montagues. We can either tell the truth about that or not, and in this case, GDs and Vice Lords. That’s our Capulets and Montagues.”— Karen Lewis, President Chicago Teachers Union Local 1
Probably the most egregious example of possible deadly consequences is the proposed closing of George Manierre Elementary School on the Near North Side. CPS is proposing to send Manierre students to Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts across the (aptly named) Division Street.
Surrounded by mostly white affluent homeowners, the last remaining low income black residents have long been divided by a tragic feud growing out of Chicago's traditional racialized poverty. The conflict dates back to the days of the Cabrini-Green housing project and attempts by the Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords to gain control over the now demolished hi-rise section.
There are people on both sides of the Division Street boundary who want to bring peace to the fractured community, but warn that will take time and resources, two things that the City is unwilling to provide. It’s not even really about being a gang member, because just living on opposite sides of Division Street is enough to become an “enemy”.
Alderman Walter Burnett, who grew up in Cabrini-Green represents the ward:
“We’re dealing with a generational curse. Some of these kid’s parents were killed by other kid's parents. That’s the real stuff in that neighborhood…Kids don’t get along. The ones from Manierre can’t even cross the street. Every time they go over to Seward Park on the Jenner side they get beat up. You’ve got grandparents and parents who’ve got all this revenge stuff simmering, and it lives on with the kids. I’m concerned about the kids' safety, too. If I lived there I wouldn’t let my kid go to that other school.”
Ten year old Dominique Brooks was one of the victims. She was beaten bloody by 8 girls for being on the wrong side of Division Street. According to Karolyn Harris who intervened in the attack, Dominique could have been killed. At a school closing hearing Dominique Brooks said in tears,”Please don’t send us to Jenner. I beg you, please.”
I attended the final CPS hearing about closing Manierre. I heard reports of Facebook threats and of a hit list being circulated. Residents do not view these as childish pranks. Sherise McDaniel said quite seriously that if Manierre and Jenner are merged:
“The classrooms will be disrupted because of the different gangs and family feuds. And I can guarantee you that if children fight, the parents will too. I would also like to let you know that these parents do use guns. At times like this when CPS is making an attempt to close the most school at one time in the nation, I don’t think you need another Columbine or Connecticut or another suicide because of bullying.”
In February of 2009 the Chicago City Council passed a resolution in support of the UN Rights of the Child. This means that is the responsibility of the city government and the people of Chicago to protect children from all forms of violence. Chicago has failed to live up to this responsibility because its policies of racial segregation, disinvestment in communities and its destructive school actions.
At the final hearing William Fleming testified how he went to the UN to file complaints about the human rights abuses associated with school closings saying:
“These are child soldiers we are creating. They are not joining gangs. We are forcing them into gangs. We are forcing them to choose a side of violence because of bad decisions that WE have made.”
Several parents at the final hearing said that if Manierre must be closed for financial reasons, why can’t students go to some of the predominantly white high-performing schools in the neighborhood like Newberry Math and Science Academy or LaSalle Language Academy? Wouldn’t advancing desegregation be a better alternative than more violence against children?
Just today I read that the independent hearing officer who heard this and other testimony opposes Manierre’s closing. The Board of Education will make the final decision later this month.?
The human cost of this New Civil War against public education
Chicago has seen what can happen with ill-advised school actions. Derrion Albert was beaten to death in 2009 near Fenger High School as a result of a consolidation. What one observer called an “an explosion of violence and disruption” occurred at Clemente High School when CPS closed Austin High School and many of its students ended up at Clemente. Three students were shot and killed amidst the social chaos.
According to one prominent South Side school activist, Hadiya Pendleton was killed last January because of a rivalry between two gangs that grew out of school consolidations in the Bronzeville community. Pendleton, an honors student who had no gang affiliations, had just returned from performing at Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Counselors, social workers and psychologists report seeing students with symptoms of PTSD, something I also observed during my years teaching in a South Side Catholic high school. Extreme stress is a dagger into the heart of a person’s immune system because of the emotional damage it does and it can result in early death. It’s life during wartime and CPS is fanning the flames.
Old-timers may remember the FBI’s COINTELPRO plan back in 1969 to trigger an all-out war between the Chicago Black Panthers and the powerful Black P. Stone street gang through planting false rumors. The whole charade was not designed to end the criminal activities of the Stones, but to sabotage the black liberation movement in Chicago and further disrupt efforts by black Chicago to end white supremacy in the city.
This was at a time when the Panthers were building a revolutionary multi-racial alliance with working class latino and white organizations. This could easily have become a war that spilled outside of the segregated boundaries of black Chicago. Fortunately leaders of the Panthers and the Stones figured out what was going on and the plot failed.
Frankly, I don’t see much difference between what the FBI did then and what CPS is doing now. CPS is willing to watch people die to fulfill its agenda. A large part of that agenda has little to do with education. It’s about land grabs on behalf of real estate interests and investment bankers as well as ethnic cleansing of working class communities of color to create a whiter more affluent Chicago.
But it’s more than just young people in the cross-hairs & the cross-fires.
In distressed communities that have endured disinvestment, unemployment and high levels of personal violence neighborhood schools are often islands of stability. Whole generations have put their heart and soul into these schools to obtain the resources denied to them by the CPS policy of educational apartheid. ??What CPS calls “underutilization”, education activists see as an opportunity for smaller classes, spaces for wraparound social and psychological services for students as well as places for after-school activities for both adults and children.
What CPS claims is a “data driven” educational agenda is an endless parade of hi-stakes testing and lifeless scripted curriculum coming from profit-hungry corporations. Not to mention that the CPS “data” is often based on sloppy research and outright lies.
On behalf of the wealthy and powerful, CPS is waging war on young people’s right to critical thinking, to conduct exploratory research, to experience in-depth learning and to participate in science and the arts.It is waging war on the love and joy associated with the student-teacher relationship. It is making war on the ability of working class youth to remake the wounded world they live in.
H.G. Wells once wrote that, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” This New Civil War is a war on civilization itself. It must be stopped.
If a bullet can kill a body, bad educational practices can murder a mind. It isn’t enough to stop the violence born of poverty, racism or extreme social alienation. It isn’t enough to save the Chicago schools as they exist now. Those are only necessary first steps toward a true education for liberation.
The young people of Chicago and our nation deserve nothing less.
Bob "BobboSphere" Simpson is a retired high school history teacher who taught on both the South and West Sides of the city. He is a member of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign.
School's Closing, Gang Feud Fuel New Fears In Old Town By Mark Konkol and Paul Biasco
Manierre Elementary Parents Make Last Pleas To Save School By Paul Biasco
The Black and White of Education in Chicago’s Public Schools: Class, Charters and Chaosby the Chicago Teachers Union
Chicago City Council Passes Resolution Supporting the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child by Northwestern University News