The Chicago school closings: Finding truth amidst the lies

“Closing 50 of our neighborhood schools is outrageous and no society that claims to care anything about its children can sit back and allow this to happen to them. There is no way people of conscience will stand by and allow these people to shut down nearly a third of our school district without putting up a fight. Most of these campuses are in the Black community. Since 2001 88% of students impacted by CPS School Actions are African-American. And this is by design."— Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union

Rahm Emanuel

It was a grim Thursday afternoon on March 21st as the news trickled out that 61 Chicago school buildings would be closed and that 54 school programs will be axed. The closings are heavily clustered in the poorest mostly African American and Latino neighborhoods, where decades of disinvestment and economic apartheid have taken a heavy toll on the residents. 

Many people have moved away from these communities, driven out by the lack of jobs, the meager resources given to the schools, the inadequate city services and the resulting crime and violence. Many believe that the forced exodus is part of a land grab for real estate interests who will move in to gentrify these areas. 

On the South and West Sides of the city, where the closings are hitting hardest, poverty is a policy, not an accident. The Chicago financial elite, which could provide jobs and rational investment, has chosen displacement over renewal, ethnic cleansing over neighborhood stabilization.  As the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel is the public face of this prairie plutocracy.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett: CEO of public school destruction in Chicago


Barbara Byrd-Bennett

To further injure already badly wounded neighborhoods, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett (left) is administering further neighborhood destabilization through massive school closings. This is despite the impassioned opposition of thousands of people who crowded into churches and gymnasiums across the city to oppose this systematic dismantling of public education.

Thirty thousand children will be directly affected by the closings. In the days leading up to the Thursday school massacre, a deluge of lies and royal decrees poured out of the CPS office at 125 S. Clark.

According to Byrd-Bennett:

”How can we leave children in under performing, underutilized buildings, when we know that we have a process by which we can absolutely get more resources to those children?”

If so, then why is the “underutilization” formula based on overcrowding an average 30 students into each classroom instead of lowering class size? Why has CPS opened up private charter schools in these “underpopulated” communities while also claiming a “budget crisis”? Why hasn’t CPS been providing the necessary “resources” all along? Why are public schools whose performance is improving also on the hit list? 

CTU vice-president Jesse Sharkey pointed out that in the past,”The vast majority of students wind up going to a school that performs worse, or equally, at the same level.”

Byrd-Bennett, knowing that safety is an issue if students have to cross busy streets and dangerous gang boundaries assured parents that:

“The safety and security of every student is essential, and we will not close any school where I believe we cannot guarantee the safety of our children as part of their transition to a new welcoming school. I will not compromise the safety of a single child.”

CPS has some $10 an hour workers for the “CPS Community Watch” from previous school closings, but the “watchers” only stand at major intersections and are often blocks apart. They do not personally escort students to and from school. 

Alderman Walter Burnett questioned the entire program in a city with a sky-high murder rate, “Anything short of more police is not going to provide safe passage, and even with police now we don't have safe passage."

Clarice Berry, president of Chicago Principals and Administrators Association said:

“I’m angry. I’m upset. I’m shaking to the core. I didn’t think they’d actually go through with this, the largest number of closings ever…There’s been no planning. Just slash and burn.”

Byrd-Bennett also claimed that at community meetings, “…everybody got it that we really needed to close schools.” That was the howler of the week.

Clearly no one was expected to take any of Bennett-Byrd’s statements seriously.

After days of disinformation that even the most trusting Pollyanna would doubt, I needed a break

 I knew exactly where to find refuge from this Windy City blizzard of lies: in the heart of North Lawndale, one of the communities most affected by Chicago’s racial apartheid and all of its myriad social problems related to extreme poverty.

The Committee to Save North Lawndale Schools was holding a press conference on the morning of March 21st to present a community-based alternative plan to the closings.The Committee outlined the possible consequences of the school closings in their written report saying that their community would “…be more adversely impacted than any community in Chicago.” 

North Lawndale in Chicago

North Lawndale across the street from the press conference

A Local School Council representative from Penn School who is also a substitute teacher told how he has been “in the trenches of these schools”. He described the lack libraries, gyms and computer labs.  Contrasting the schools in North Lawndale with the nearby suburbs, he asked why empty school rooms were not being used to provide services that would benefit the community. 

Windy Pearson

North Lawndale has been the target of venture capitalists and the school privatization efforts they favor. These include charter schools that shut out parent participation and are generally non-union. Charter school faculties are mostly white at a time when CPS has severely reduced the number of black teachers. Windy Pearson (pictured on the right) of Action Now and a CPS graduate declared her organization’s support for public neighborhood schools saying,” Our children and their education is not a rubber stamp for the banks.” 

Darren Tillis, who works to liaison between CPS and the Lawndale community denied that schools in the neighborhood are “underutilized” calling traditional schools the “most stable thing” in the community and that 50% of North Lawndale schools were trending upward in performance. He challenged CPS to study the alternative plan being offered by the North Lawndale Community Advisory Council (CAC), saying, ”We think this plan will serve as a great model, not only for the schools in North Lawndale, but for schools throughout the City of Chicago.”

As explained by Valerie Leonard from the Lawndale Alliance, the plan included the goals of high quality education for all students, plus social, emotional and health services to North Lawndale students that will ensure they are ready to learn. The plan recommended specialities for different schools including STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), green technology, entrepreneurship, leadership development and fine arts. All families would have access to pre-school programs. Community members would be able to access necessary social services from the school building.

This idea of using spaces within schools to turn them into true community centers is being implemented nationally. The Coalition for Community Schools has a detailed report on how the type of schools being advocated for North Lawndale can work. The Chicago Teachers Union has also provided research supporting the idea. Lawndale's "underutilized" spaces could be used exactly for that purpose.

Leonard explained that a Community School Collaborative will be established that would work on providing needed social services to the community from within the school while the Community Advisory Council worked on the academic and extra curricular needs. According to Leonard:

“We will organize the 240 different organizations in North Lawndale that provide social services, that provide youth services, that provide counseling and health and fitness.”

The written report went into more detail:

  1. Programming that will reduce truancy and delinquency and cut the pipeline from school to prison.
  2. Programs for health fitness and nutrition, the eradication of the food desert and opportunities for healthy eating and positive lifestyle changes.
  3. Workforce development training that will provide students with exposure to career choices in manufacturing, technology, health, and the trades beginning at the elementary school level.
  4. Basic skills and workforce training and development opportunities for parents.
  5. Outlets for sports and recreation, arts and culture.

Make no little plans…

Daniel Burnham, who created the first master plan for Chicago, was quoted as saying:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will themselves not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.”

Valerie Leonard

Clearly the plan being put forward in North Lawndale is firmly in the Burnham tradition and will require significant seed money for implementation. The written report estimates that funding the new Collaborative will require at least $322,000 for the first year. Valerie Leonard(pictured on the left) said this money would be raised by going to foundations.  

This would give the Collaborative more leeway than if it were funded solely by CPS.

It was the failures of the CPS leadership that led to the current educational disaster. The Collaborative is in effect, a declaration of independence for North Lawndale, a community coming together to shape its own destiny in the face of relentless attacks from the wealthy and powerful.

North Lawndale was originally threatened with 13 school closings which CAC said would be devastating;

Closing 13 buildings and leaving them empty would cause a host of problems, including exacerbated blight conditions; reduce property values; increase student mobility rates; increased dropout rates; increased vandalism and violence and interrupted student learning. The most upwardly mobile residents may decide to leave while real estate developers will continue to take a pass on new development. This single act could be just as detrimental if not more detrimental than losing major employers like international Harvester, Sears and Western Electric. It could take 10 years or more for the community to recover—- if we recover. Ten years represents an entire generation of elementary school students. 

One North Lawndale activist told me privately that she didn’t think the community could survive a blow like that one. 

When the hit list came out that afternoon there were 4 North Lawndale schools among schools slated to be closed. A smiling Barbara Byrd-Bennett was all over the TV news promising air conditioning, libraries, science labs and iPads at the receiving schools for displaced students. My prediction is that we’ll be seeing those resources arrive around the time the Loch Ness monster surfaces in Burnham Harbor.

What is certain is that opposition to the school closings runs high. The Chicago Teachers Union(CTU) and the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) are planning a mass rally on March 27 with civil disobedience while neighborhood leaders around the city are planning their next move.

The resistance continues…

North Lawndale mural
North Lawndale mural showing the community's long history of resistance


Sources Consulted

Save North Lawndale Schools: A community-based alternative plan

Principals on school closings: 'There's been no planning. Just slash and burn' by Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, John Byrne and John Chase

CPS Transition Plan Underway by Elizabeth Brackett

Community members rally against school closings by Mario Lekovic

Chicago proposes closing 53 elementary schools, firing staff at another 6 By Linda Lutton and Becky Vevea

Parents, community leaders question whether Safe Passage program will get their kids to school and back unharmed by John Chase, Jeff Coen and John Byrne

President Lewis’ Statement on School Closings

Instead of closing schools, how about this? By Valerie Strauss

Leave a comment