Brentano, a school on the city's Westside, was slated for closing. An active parent group intervened, however, and managed to convince CPS to take the school off the list. On the one hand, this looks like a rare instance in which CPS accepted community input. The reason why they did so in this case, though, is telling. As Cassie Creswell, a parent in the the Brentano neighborhood, told me, "It would be very naive to think that race and class played no role in Brentano being taken off the list." Brentano is in a gentrifying neighborhood. "I think the decision makers at CPS," Creswell said, "were surprised to find white people actively defending a neighborhood school where their kids were not yet enrolled, and that helped get Brentano off the list." Creswell added that the vast majority of students at Brentano are low-income and minority, and they need and deserve to have their public school kept open. But so, she said, do all the other students whose schools are being taken away from them.
In public discussions, violence and gang activity is often mentioned as a central reason for not closing schools. There are valid concerns about students traveling longer distances, and possibly across gang territory lines, to school. But, as the teacher at Bowen pointed out, the students he works with "aren't safe as it is." Violence is a massive problem in Chicago's schools. It's not a problem that's going to be solved by the closings, but it's not a problem caused by the closings either.
Rather, the violence and the closings have a common cause. That cause is Chicago's history of income and racial segregation, which has made it possible for the central bureaucracy to ignore the needs and interests of disadvantaged communities around the city. The most recent school closings are not an isolated incident, as the histories of Attucks, Bowen, and other south and Westside schools makes clear.
Instead, the closings are only the latest example of a pattern of "reform" and churn, in which neighborhoods without the resources or political clout to defend themselves are reorganized and experimented on without either input from, or concern about the impact on, teachers, students, or communities. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the school closings are not something being done for, or with, students or parents, but something being done to them. Wendy Katten, a parent at Burley, one of schools further north that is not closing, and the director of the parent coalition Raise Your Hand, pointed out damningly that "the CEO of the district did not attend one community hearing."*
I don't doubt that the Emanuel administration believes that what they are doing is best for students and the district. I'm sure they are sincerely convinced that closing neighborhood schools and opening charters instead will in the long run improve the district's financial health and outcomes for students. The problem is that it's difficult to make good decisions, without input from, or respect for, the people your decisions are going to directly affect. As a result, Chicago does not have a consistent, thoughtful reform effort. Instead, it has a series of random, vacillating diktats which seem designed mostly to save money by pulling resources from communities that already don't have very many.