The West Side of Chicago says NO! to school closings

“Listening to person after person eloquently, yet desperately, plead for their schools not to be closed during the Austin-North Lawndale Network school utilization hearing on Jan. 31 brought forth, to my mind, heart-wrenching images of our enslaved African-American ancestors pleading for their loved ones not to be beaten, sold at auction, or killed.”—Bonita Robinson, retired Chicago teacher, Duke Ellington School, Austin-North Lawndale Network

The Chicago Public Schools(CPS) has asked residents to attend any of 28 meetings around the city to give their input about neighborhood schools being closed because of “underutilization” and "budget constraints". The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has forcefully refuted these CPS rationalizations in their publication The Black and White of Education in Chicago.

In response to threatened school closings by the CPS leadership, neighborhoods across the city are saying NO— loud and clear. One such meeting was held on a cold Chicago evening in late January in the Friendship MB Church on Chicago's West Side near where I live. Schools from the Austin and North Lawndale neighborhoods were represented.These communities are largely black and working class.

In the face of the cold-blooded racist threats to close their neighborhood schools, people responded with a night of love, pride and solidarity. Hundreds of parents, students and teachers packed the Friendship MB Church as people spoke of the deep love they had for their neighborhood schools where teachers and staff go that extra mile even when they must fight for the most basic modern educational resources. 

Audience at the Austin-Lawndale hearings

The church was packed by opponents of school closings

“We have the most devoted teachers in our school. I’ve been an A student since the 8th grade. I love Henson and love is very strong word. And man do I love Henson. I’m graduating, so why should I care if it closes. They help the entire community, not just the people who go there.”— an 8th grade student at Mathew Henson School, Austin-North Lawndale Network

People spoke with pride about the academic accomplishments of the students and the grants their schools had worked so hard for. They spoke of their schools' partnerships with universities, symphonies, museums, science laboratories and businesses so that students can excel beyond the classroom. 

Valerie Betts

Valerie Betts makes a point

CPS routinely withholds education resources from neighborhood schools, particularly in working class black and latino communities. Schools must work hard to obtain grants and support from outside organizations. They are often successful as Valerie Betts, a CPS graduate, a teacher, a Local School Council(LSC) member and a grandparent of a May School student explained:

“This year she [her granddaughter] is a 6th grader. She participates in jazz band, drumline, the after school dance program and the YMCA after school program.  In her music classes she is learning to play guitar. She was in contact with the NASA space center and Skyped with the astronauts. We have a plethora of resources including the Old Town School of Folk Music, the Joffre Ballet, Lyric Opera, Roosevelt University and the Chicago Symphony.”

There was solidarity as representatives of West Side schools promised to unite against the closing of neighborhood schools, institutions that help hold communities together in the face of the poverty and racism.

“We will continue to fight against unjust school closings. Public schools should stay public. We want and demand and end to transformations, school closings and charters/turnarounds. Quit turning around our kids and our communities…If we have to make ourselves a human chain around our school or inside it, we don’t care, jail is not new to us.”——– Michelle Young president of the May School LSC and member of Action Now

.Entire generations participated including current students, parents and grandparents. Teachers spoke, some of whom had taught the parents of current students. Parents and grandparents who were school volunteers or Local School Council members were also at the microphone.

A neighborhood school develops a complex web of relationships that is similar to an extended family. To lose a neighborhood school can be likened to tearing a family asunder. This explains the deep suspicion many West Siders have toward the Chicago Public Schools(CPS) with its emphasis on “turnarounds” and charter schools. 

When CPS “turns a school around”, they fire all staff and start “fresh”, which only further destabilizes the longterm relationships people have built up. Charter school staffs tend to be less experienced, have a higher turnover for teachers and have fewer teachers of color. Most charters are non-union, which means their staffs are lower paid and find it difficult to challenge poor administrative policies or misuse of resources. 

Although speakers spoke with pride about how their schools had improved their test scores, there was also skepticism about standardized testing. Overuse of standardized testing takes away from instructional time and has been used as a weapon to fire teachers and close schools.

Save our schools

Choir practice at the church was canceled to accomodate the crowd

CPS policies have dramatically reduced the number of black and latino teachers through school closings. West Side teacher and CTU Black Caucus president Brandon Johnson has presented compelling evidence of how serious this problem is:

In 2000, 52 percent of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students and 41 percent of CPS teachers were black. Today, 43 percent of students and just 25 percent of teachers are black.

Black teachers are more likely to work in high-poverty schools with high percentages of black students. In other words, the data indicates that black teachers are employed at higher rates in schools serving students with severe challenges, augmented by their living conditions. These same schools tend to be less desirable workplaces and are disrupted by a revolving door of administrators, plagued by relentless testing and are void of teacher autonomy over curriculum and are more likely to be closed or "turned-round." 

West Siders wonder why charter schools are getting generous public funding when neighborhood schools are often starved for the most basic educational resources. The official reason that CPS is threatening to close schools on the West Side is because of “underutilization”. So West Siders ask, after years of overcrowded black and latino schools, why doesn’t CPS use this opportunity to reduce class size, one of the most important factors in school success? 

Trayvon Granville an 8th grade CPS student put it this way:

"A CPS school like May is supposed to have 900 students, but we only have 461 students. I think that’s a good thing because that means smaller classes. "

 Nicole Shere, a teacher at Armstrong Math and Science which has 98 students in a building that could hold 270 echoed Granville’s assessment:

"Every kid in our school knows every teacher, and every teacher knows every kid. Not only does that work to build our social skills and interpersonal relationships, but because of those relationships, our kids want to achieve well, and they do achieve well because we work together.”

The gold standard for Chicago education is the private University of Chicago Lab School with its 10-1 student-teacher ratio, its well equipped labs and classrooms and its aversion to endless standardized testing. This is where Mayor Rahm Emanuel sends his kids. West Side residents want a a similar opportunity for their children. Why shouldn't their children have small classes, adequate resources and an end to hi-stakes testing?

People also pointed out that Austin and North Lawndale need community services that could occupy unused school spaces. Several parents spoke eloquently about this, with one parent explaining how such counseling services helped her deal with issues that impacted on her life and those of her children. LSC Chair Earlean Green said of the Ella Flagg Young school:

“This is a community school. At Young, we’re open six days a week to service our students and the community. We’re not just about the students.”

One West Side resident stated that the whole underutilization crisis and West Side population "loss" was manufactured: 

"There were areas of the black community that were gentrified. There were homes that were that were torn down. public housing was torn down.  So let's not say loss. I believe terminology is very important. Those homes were torn down purposely. And there has been a plan to that in the black community… Close your eyes and pretend this audience is white. Would you [CPS] be making these same decisions if the audience was white?"

 Several speakers questioned the veracity of the CPS statistics

David Wolf of Chalmers School said that CPS called Chalmers “underutilized”, but CPS failed to include the charter school that took up an entire wing of the building. He also said CPS had not taken into account the enrollment increase that Chalmers had experienced.

Save our school!

A Chalmers School student show their love for the school

Valerie Leonard of the Lawndale Alliance presented some of her extensive research analyzing what has been called the “fuzzy math” of CPS budget data: 

“For the past year or so, you have indicated to the press that you must close schools because you are facing a billion dollar deficit. This is one of the main reasons you give for closing an unprecedented number of schools at once. You indicated in the 2013 budget that you would be closing a $435 million budget gap by depleting your cash reserves. As a result, CPS' bond rating was lowered. Even after you closed out the 2012 school year in June, 2012 with a $322 million windfall, you did not disclose this fact in your bond documents for your December 2012 bond issue.”

Leonard also questioned why CPS has included performance data on public schools but omitted this critical information about charter schools:

According to the Center for Education Reform, 15% of U.S. charter schools will fail due to performance. In the City of Chicago, 33% of charter schools are performing at the lowest levels. Some charter schools have experienced financial strain after taking on multiple construction projects. A study by Catalyst Chicago indicated that nearly 50% of Chicago's charter schools have run a deficit in recent years. Substance News reports that a significant number of charter schools are having difficulty making teacher pension payments on time. Schools that have financial difficulty usually have difficulty maintaining high quality staff and programs.

In addition, CPS is opening new charter schools when it claims "underutilization" of public schools. The hypocrisy is exceptionally blatant even for a city authority that is infamous for that.

Chicago’s high respected educational research group Designs for Change(DfC) wrote a detailed report showing how public schools in poverty areas which have strong administrative leadership, well organized Local School Councils and an active unionized faculty can do an excellent job. These are exactly the type of schools that West Side parents are demanding stay open AND obtain the resources they deserve. CPS ignores the findings of Designs for Change and continues with privatization and turnarounds.

Another West Side resident recalled what Malcolm X had taught:

" Urban school reform has been a depraved failed experiment. In closing I will invoke the words of Malcolm X when he said,'If you stick a knife in my back 9 inches and pull it out 6 inches that's not progress. If you pull it out all the way, that's still not progress. The progress come from healing the wound that blow made.' They haven't even begun. I'm talking about CPS and the 'urban reformers'. They haven't even begun to pull the knife out. They won't even admit the knife is there…They have plunged the proverbial knife into the backs of our children. It's time to heal. It's time to stop this failed experiment now."

 The War against the West Side and the battle for public education  

"The closure of public schools has caused a shockwave that extends beyond the classroom and our community. The social and economic costs outweigh any savings to be gained. These costs outweigh any savings to be gained. These costs include disruptions to student learning, increased violence, death, displacement of teachers, reduction in salaries, the cost of starting up new schools and the disposal of public assets which could be spent on our classrooms.” —— Michelle Young president of the May School LSC and member of Action Now.

For many West Siders, neighborhood schools as literally a matter of life and death. Both Austin and North Lawndale have suffered heavy casualties in Chicago’s gun violence. 

Members of Action Now, a Chicago community organization were out in force.

Many of those at the meeting had the name Hadiya Pendleton on their minds, the 15-year-old South Side girl who had been killed in a shooting only two days before.  She had performed with her school band at Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony and had been in an anti-gang video when she was a sixth grader.

Speakers repeatedly talked about how important neighborhood schools are in keeping kids “off the streets.” Windy Pearson of the Herzl School LSC was concerned that students affected by school closings may have to travel far from their homes when it is hard for them to cross their own streets safely.

“They have to take two to three buses to get to school.They are moved from one territory…to another gang territory.”

Neighborhood schools also keep students within the web of relationships that help kids stay safer by providing a soul and mind nurturing environment. There are bad influences on the streets of Chicago that can be attractive to young people whose minds is still being formed. Dedicated teachers and school staff can promote positive caring attitudes and a spirit of intellectual inquiry by the very example of their lives while also imparting those values through their teaching

When kids do reach high school age, where they become more independent, and often travel greater distances to school, they will be better prepared morally and intellectually. This is critical in the consumerist, individualistic violent nation that is the USA today, a nation that is at war with itself as it pursues endless wars abroad.

The gun violence that plagues communities like Austin and North Lawndale  is sometimes called horizontal violence, the violence within oppressed communities. Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote about this extensively in books like Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon was a member of the Algerian national liberation movement against French colonialism. Put simply, oppressed people can internalize the values of the oppressor which leads them to lash out against their peers instead of against the racist oppressive system. 

 Poverty is a policy, not an accident

This internal violence has its roots in the disinvestment, racism and poverty that is enforced by decades of national and local economic policy. This is why people at West Side mass meetings call for more jobs and better investment policies.

But investment that could go into sustainable good paying jobs in the government, non-profit and private enterprise sectors has been spent on downtown development and the enrichment of selected neighborhoods that are majority white (with a few exceptions). Tax Increment Financing (TIF), which is supposed to finance development in poverty areas has largely failed to accomplish this and instead serves as a slush fund for politicians and their cronies.

After the devastating flight of high paying unionized manufacturing jobs from Chicago in the 1980’s, jobs in tourism and retail became the low paying largely non-union alternative. Unemployment remains high, especially for youth.

This is economic violence in the first degree, an economic war of the rich against the poor. The economic war on the West Side is devastating to youth who must navigate the dangerous intersection of race, class and gender under some of the most difficult social conditions in the USA.

Working class people of color have been the main casualties of this economic aggression. Mass layoffs of teachers of color is just one example. Recently Mayor Emanuel declared war on public employees and their unions, slashing budgets and seeking to privatize city services. He has tried to reduce wages of workers at the city’s airports. He has done nothing to support the efforts of retail and service workers to improve their pay and benefits at mega-corporations like Walmart, Hyatt, Darden, McDonalds and others.

 These attacks come despite research showing how important parental income is to their children’s success in school.

There are those who say, just be thankful you have a job, even a minimum wage job with no benefits, no guaranteed hours, no security or no respect from management—- even if that job can barely support one person, much less a family. Van Jones has a point when he says nothing stops a bullet like a job. But a job that pays poverty wages is scarcely an improvement.

With a wealth gap that is the worst in the developed world, the USA needs an economic transformation on a scale that would dwarf Franklin Roosevelt’s racially biasedNew Deal or LBJ’s doomed War on Poverty.This will take a 21st century liberation movement, that by necessity, will be radically different from those that have come before it.

And it will require well educated young minds to be in the forefront.

 Education and Liberation

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” ? Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed  

“We have a new principal. He’s only been here 2 years. We haven’t had a chance to grow with him. He is big dreams for Henson. If you close the school he won’t have a chance to carry out those dreams. Education is liberation. Peaceful, positive and productive, is what he says everyday. He wants us to believe that—and I believe it.”——–an 8th grade student at the West Side Henson School

Education for liberation means schools that encourage students to think critically, research carefully, create imaginatively and work both individually and in groups to further their understanding. With the world around them always in flux, students need to understand not only how to cope with change but to become that change. This is what public education is supposed to be about. 

It is clear that there are schools on the West Side who are committed to a vision of education for liberation. That is why the battle for neighborhood schools is so critical to the future of the West Side. Imagine just for a moment that CPS stopped its relentless demands for standardized testing, provided West Side schools with the finest in educational resources, supported its teachers, treated Local School Councils with respect and stopped the expansion of privatized charter schools. 

How much more time and energy would be available to develop new curricula and programs and reshape them according to changing needs? How much more could students accomplish if West Siders didn’t have to waste time and energy fighting the CPS leadership day in and day out? 

Right now there is a resistance movement growing across Chicago to save public education. The West Side is a part of this movement. But it is a movement that is still largely based on individual schools and neighborhoods.

The struggle cannot be won on a school by school or neighborhood by neighborhood basis. Chicago’s enemies of public education will seek out divisions and weaknesses and relentlessly exploit them. It is time for a city-wide alliance to not only defend neighborhood schools, but to seek ways to build on their successes and learn from their shortcomings. 

Much of our educational policy is also determined on the state and federal level, so city-wide alliances must also become state-wide and national alliances. Government at all levels is heavily dominated by powerful corporate interests who favor privatization and hi-stakes testing for working class education.

The USA needs an educational system dedicated to liberating young minds, not forcing them to endure corporate dictated soul shriveling curricula and mind numbing endless testing. We could stand aside and allow our educational system to become a chain of corporate owned "big box" schools. But if we do, we will have buildings labeled schools that are killing the human spirit of those inside.

We have the beginnings of an education resistance movement. Can that grow into a powerful education liberation movement so that young people will have the tools to transform this nation and further the cause of social justice?

That possible future has yet to be written….


Graphic by the Black Caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union

Sources Consulted

Disappearing acts: The decline of black teachers by Brandon Johnson 

Manufactured in Chicago: The Largest School Utilization Crisis in the Country by Valerie Leonard

Chicago residents fight to keep West Side schools open by Ellyn Fortino 

Fuzzy Math: The CPS budget crisis by Curtis Black 

The Black and White of Education in Chicago by the Chicago Teachers Union 

Fight for the Future: How low wages are failing Children in Chicago’s schools by Stand Up! Chicago and the Chicago Teachers Union 

Feisty crowd fights to save West Side elementary schools by Lauren Fitzpatrick 

Retrieving insights from Fanon: systemic and social violence by Maulana Ron Karenga 

Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression by Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan 

Self­ esteem Building and Horizontal Violence by Francia C. Clavecillas 

Poverty pulls the trigger by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor 

Chicago Middle-School Students Berate Officials: ‘Don’t Close Our Schools! by Kari Lydersen 

Violence plagues Chicago area that shaped Obama's views 

Nothing stops a bullet like a job by Van Jones

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