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Chicago Public Schools Thu Dec 06 2012

The "Justification" for Closing Schools in Chicago

By David Stieber

To be honest and straight to the point, closing a neighborhood school means the city has failed that neighborhood. It should come as no shock then that all the school closures in Chicago over the past decade have been in black and latino areas of the city. Many of these neighborhoods, like Englewood where I teach, have been ignored, underfunded, and blamed for their own problems for decades.

Logic dictates that CPS should be trying to help improve struggling schools, but using logic and CPS in the same sentence is a mistake. As CPS Chief Operating Officer Tim Cawley said publicly, "If we think there's a chance that a building is going to be closed in the next five to 10 years, if we think it's unlikely it's going to continue to be a school, we're not going to invest in that building." So CPS admits that if a school needs help there is no way that they are going to fund that school. Since the vast majority of underperforming schools are in poorer communities, CPS has, through its own policies, decided to give up on the schools in those communities. They look at a school as a business investment, not a community investment.

This city has consistently failed communities. Instead of trying to improve, fully fund, and help communities and their schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Benett, following the previous policies put in place by Mayor Daley and CEOs Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan, Ron Huberman, Terry Mazany and Jean Claude Brizard (wow, that is a lot of turnover), believe to really "help" a community it is best to close its schools. It's like a doctor saying that you're really sick, but it's better for your family if you die.

We are currently in the most violent year in Chicago's recent history. Chicago has significantly more deaths than any other major city. If we apply the "logic" of school closings to violence in Chicago, then we should close the police stations too. I mean the police must be failing our citizens, right?

Schools, like churches, are integral parts of neighborhoods. Schools are used for community meetings and gathering places. Many former students come back to see their teachers and show their old schools to their children and grandchildren. Research shows that when a school is closed it further further destabilizes a community. If CPS did any real research they would know that closing a school in impoverished communities harms the community. Yet rather than doing real research, the CPS PR department claims that school closings, among other things, help neighborhoods.

Chicago continues the proven-ineffective practice of closing schools. In the past, when a school was closed, a new school was opened in the same building with new teachers, new principals, new security, new custodians, and new lunch workers -- yet with worse results than the school it replaced.

Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett have claimed at various points in the past few months that they are going to close schools that are underutilized and also that they are going to close underperforming schools, or a combination of the two.

So if we have an underutilization problem, why are they promoting and opening more charter schools? Wouldn't the logic be that if schools are underutilized we don't need more schools? Why are they promoting charters that are underutilized themselves? Charters have proven no more effective than public schools and in many cases they actually perform worse than public schools.

So they are closing public schools to open more charter schools and closing "failing" public schools to open even more failing charter schools. Confused yet? The "logic" of CPS only gets worse.

Another consequence of closing schools in black and Latino neighborhoods and firing the entire school staff is that experienced teachers of color are disappearing from the CPS system. They are typically replaced with young (read much less expensive), white teachers. So not only are schools being closed, but students in CPS are losing role models who look like them and are often from the same neighborhoods.

But you say to yourself, come on, they must be closing schools for some good reason, right? At least we can all agree that closing a school will save CPS lots of money, right? I mean Emanuel, Byrd-Bennett, and CPS spokesperson Becky Carrol said that closing schools will save the district money. I mean if CPS and the mayor said it, it must be true, right? Well actually, closing a school does not save money either.

So closing school does not save money and does not improve the education for students. Charters do not perform better, the schools that replace the closed schools do not do better. So... what are we missing? What is the incentive to close "underperforming, underutilized" public schools?

The Chicago Appointed Board of Education (none of them are educators) tells teachers, principals and school staff how to best run their schools. The Board also tells parents and community organizations that they may live, work and have a vested interest in their community but they, the community, do not know what is best for their school -- only the Board knows. This model used by the Board of Education of "you don't know what's best for you" goes way back in history and is steeped in racism and oppression. In fact, Chicago is the only school district in the entire state that does not have an elected board.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, in her campaign to convince the public to trust in CPS and trust her, just said that no charters will be opened in any closed public schools... well that is likely not true either. In an attempt by CPS to appease the public (who do not want schools to be closed) they are offering an "agreement." Their "agreement" is that if they can close schools this year there won't be any more school closings for the next five years. That may sound appealing to some, but CPS can still close as many schools they wish this year. In addition, the language of the their proposal to not close schools after this year just says they won't close schools based on underutilization -- they left themselves a loophole to still close schools based on "under-performance." So once again CPS is just providing a nice sound bite.

Mayor Emanuel continues to lie to and disrespect the citizens, taxpayers and voters of Chicago and since Byrd-Bennett is forced to do what he says, there is no reason to trust anything coming out of CPS headquarters. We have had six different CEOs in the past 11 years who come in and change the policy, the message and the vision of CPS at their whim. In addition, since the school system is controlled by the mayor, the "CEO" has no real power. Just look at Brizard, who "decided to move on" conveniently after the first teacher strike in 25 years in Chicago. Byrd Bennet, like Vallas, Duncan, Huberman, Mazany and Brizard, will move on somewhere else or be blamed and let go. All the while the students in Chicago Public Schools will suffer, because CPS will blame the teachers and blame the schools instead of fully investing in them.

The answers are not simple, but in every community in Chicago there are organizations, parent groups, educators and committed citizens passionate about improving education in this city. It is sad that we allow a mayor to run education when he is clearly not interested in helping all kids. I mean, didn't he say that "25% of the students in Chicago aren't going to amount to anything" anyway? That comment shouldn't come as a surprise, especially since after his most recent comments about how people can "choose to drive" if they can't afford public transportation. Rahm has no concept of the needs of the vast majority of the people of Chicago. He lives in an ivory tower and tells us to eat cake.


Dave Stieber is a father, husband, CPS teacher of History. Dave is passionately committed to promoting and improving urban public education, while simultaneously improving the lives of his students. He will be graduating shortly with his masters in Urban Education Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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