Closing Schools Without Discussion Won't Fix Chicago's System

City officials are experimenting on disadvantaged neighborhoods, often without input from families, students, and teachers.


Demonstrators at a Chicago Teachers Union protest (John Gress/Reuters)

"School reform" is one of those phrases that everybody, it seems, can get behind. Progressives like it because, hey, it's reform, and progressives like reform. Conservatives like it because "school reform" implies that government and unions are doing a bad job running the schools, and conservatives are generally skeptical of government control and certainly no fans of unions.

The only people who, occasionally, seem to express doubts about school reform are the schools, teachers, and communities who have to deal with it.

This is certainly the case with the latest, sweeping round of school reform in Chicago. In March, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city was going to close 61 school buildings, affecting some 30,000 students, the vast majority of them between kindergarten and 8th grade. The move is necessary, the city argues, in order to deal with a massive budget crunch; the district is supposed to face a $1 billion deficit next year. But the city has also argued that moving students from poorly performing schools to better-performing schools will have educational benefits for everybody.

All of the city's claims are dubious at best -- from the number of schools being closed, to the number of students affected, to whether the closings will actually save money, to the formula CPS uses to decide which schools are under-utilized and ripe for closing. But the argument that the changes will benefit students in poorly performing schools seems especially hard to credit when you look closely at any of the schools actually affected, or at the way the changes have been implemented.

Crispus Attucks, for example, is a southside elementary school that is being phased out over two years. When I researched the school in the course of writing a profile for the Every Chicago Public School Is My School website, I found that Attucks has one of the largest homeless populations in the city: An astonishing 48% of its student body is homeless. Given the chaotic nature of life outside of school for these kids, you'd think that CPS would want to provide a stable school environment. Instead, Attucks has been repeatedly targeted for closure and disruption. In 2004, it was a receiving school for the shuttered Raymond Elementary. In 2008, the then-building was abandoned with virtually no community input or information sessions, and the school was moved 12 blocks south. Many of the students who made that move will now be shifting again to Beethoven Elementary, a school that itself has a large homeless population. How all of this can possibly be in the interest of Attucks's students is unclear.

Dewey Elementary, another southside elementary school, is not being closed, but it is being "turned around," which means that all of its staff, from principals to janitors, will be fired, and new staff hired. According to Colleen McKinley, a third-grade teacher at Dewey, the news of the turnaround was presented as a done deal at a 7:30 staff meeting; neither teachers nor the community had any input. When a parent group circulated a petition, 80% of parents signed, every single one of them agreeing that they did not want the school to be turned around, or for the current staff to be let go. McKinley was particularly concerned about the turnaround because, like Attucks, Dewey has a significant homeless population. "[C]afeteria workers, janitors, security guards, and teacher aides will lose their jobs," McKinley said. "This means that the Dewey children will lose numerous stable, nurturing adults who know them well and support their learning. The job losses will further destabilize the Englewood neighborhood. "

Bowen, a southside high school, is also not facing closure. Instead, it is being subdivided; Bowen will retain its building, but it will share space with a charter school from the Noble Charter School Network. According to a teacher I spoke to who wished to remain anonymous, this is part of an ongoing history of rejiggering. Starting in 2002, Bowen was divided into four "small schools," with four separate administrations. Then the small schools were abandoned in 2011 and the school consolidated as one school -- with everyone having to reapply for their jobs. The decision to add the charter school this year seems to have been made without input from the principal or the alderman, much less from teachers. Even a hearing officer appointed by CPS stated that dividing the school was a bad idea. But, the teacher I spoke to noted dryly, "CPS has shown at best a limited interest in considering the opinions they solicit."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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