Winds of Change in the Windy City

Winds of Change in the Windy City

Students and parents from Lafayette School marched to their alderman's office on March 21. Lafayette is one of a staggering 54 Chicago schools slated for closure—the most ever in a single year in a U.S. city. Photo: Bill Healy, Chicago Public Media. (Source: labornotes.org)
Students and parents from Lafayette School marched to their alderman's office on March 21. Lafayette is one of a staggering 54 Chicago schools slated for closure—the most ever in a single year in a U.S. city. Photo: Bill Healy, Chicago Public Media. (Source: labornotes.org)

The battle for Chicago’s schools is raging. The April 24th School Board Meeting in Chicago was a hotbed of competing interests, and nothing seems likely to cool down any time soon.

As of Wednesday’s meeting, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) intends to close 54 schools, co-locate six, and send eleven more through a “turnaround” process in which they will massively reorganize students, teachers, and resources. The school board cites “underutilization” as the main reason for the closings, though many school and community groups question the formulas CPS is using to determine schools’ capacities.

According to the very comprehensive article in Substance News, “James Morgan, LSC chair for Trumbull Elementary... told the Board that Special Ed students were not being taken into consideration—the formula was not correct—and that Trumbull really would have 80% 'utilization' if the formula is calculated correctly.”

As schools close, the students have to find new schools to attend. CPS has dubbed these “Welcoming Schools,” and consistently glosses over the problems these schools will face with the influx of students. The formula being used sets 30 students per class as the “ideal class size,” according to an article last month in the Chicago Tribune. The same article points out that the statewide average class size is around 21 students per class.

One of Chicago’s Aldermen (the equivalent of City Council Members), Mary O'Connor, spoke at the School Board meeting about some of the problems of this “ideal”, using her two minutes to explain that “schools in her ward, instead of being 'underutilized' are facing serious overcrowding. She cited the overcrowding at Oriole Park Elementary and Wildwood Elementary schools, where classes are held in broom closets and cafeterias.”

Even more alarming is the fact that some students may not end up enrolled anywhere. According to Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) Political Activities Coordinator Xian Barrett, last year when six Chicago elementary schools were closed, eleven percent of the students were lost. That is, their names did not appear on any roster of any other elementary school in Chicago. Barrett expressed concern that with more closings, the percentage of students lost in the shuffle could significantly increase.

The Chicago School Board heard from many people that day, most of whom were speaking about a school with which they were intimately involved. Some asked for increased funding for Charter schools, many others pleaded with the Board to spare their school.

Bonita Robinson, a retired veteran teacher, made more general comments. Substance News reports that she:

told the School Board that the testing now being emphasized in the schools had led to a loss of African-American teachers and a destabilization of the community... She called the closings insidious racism... a "modern-day Tuskegee experiment." When she asked, "Can I get an answer?" as she was surrounded by security men, Board President David Vitale replied, "You've had your time."

Ms. Robinson wasn’t the only person to recognize the systemic nature of the problem. Around 250 self-organized students boycotted their State Mandated tests in order to spend the day at the school board meeting. The students, organized under the name Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS), were working towards two important objectives. First, they wanted to voice their dissent of the school closing and reorganization. Although this cycle of closings will not directly affect high schools, these students got a firsthand lesson in solidarity this summer, when their teachers went on a courageous strike for schools worthy of their students brilliance and effort.

Second, the students wanted to call attention to one of the roots of the school closing debacle—overemphasis on testing and standardization. As schools are required to meet more and more requirements and comply with more and more regulations, it is increasingly easy for officials to ignore great teaching and real learning, focusing instead on data points with little relevance. As students, parents, and supporters marched outside the Board of Education building, a parent upstairs in the meeting lamented that Courtney Elementary, the excellent school her child attends, was being closed because it hadn’t shown significant growth from it’s already impressive achievements, stating that CPS might as easily "downgrade Harvard for the same standard as Courtney."

Barrett lauded the students for leadership—many adults had strongly warned students against walking out of Wednesday's test, including a number of threats from the district to take away prom or deny graduation. The students, however, were not dissuaded, and organized the event without much adult oversight, even down to organizing the buses. Unfortunately, some in the mainstream media don't trust teenagers, and insisted that the organizing had been done by adults.

The students are a powerful force in and of themselves, and fortuitously met with the Fight for Fifteen, a movement in Chicago fighting for a $15 per hour living wage for all workers. They are currently organizing with other groups around the country for a large student strike in mid-May.

Although several things came to a head around Wednesday’s Board meeting, these problems have been building all week.

Despite their cries of poverty, CPS has found it worthwhile to dedicate $14.2 million to inventorying supplies in the schools they’re closing. In recent weeks, this team of about 40 has descended upon some of the schools, despite the fact that their fates have not been sealed. Barrett likened it to “walking up to someone and taking measurements for their coffin.”

On Tuesday, the day before the board meeting, a team had arrived at Dewey Elementary Academy of Fine Arts on Chicago’s South Side, to count books, iPads, laptops and other resources. Parents came out in droves to stop this outrage, citing the fact that the school’s fate had not been sealed, and were promised that the inventory would be held off until further notice.

But Chicago parents are not easily fooled. A few parents returned to the school the next day, and many others waited by the phone. When the inventory team broke the promise and arrived to count the school’s resources, bucking the arrangement they had made the day before, the parents were ready. According to Barrett, they interrupted classes, taking books out of children’s hands, and telling the teachers they would have to hold off on assigning homework from those books for the next few days while the books were counted. The few parent in the school mobilized immediately, locking supplies into classrooms and closets to keep them out of the hands of the CPS delegation.

The team sent to count the school’s resources was comprised of a large majority of white people. Chicago Public Media WBEZ quoted Matthew Johnson, a parent who arrived at the school that afternoon to help protect the students, as saying, “Thirty-two Caucasians, at the basketball court, in a group, huddled. You’d think [it was] the police—I thought somebody got shot on the basketball court. But they were coming in to do inventory.”

However, although all of the individuals he saw at the basketball court were white, there were several people of color in the delegation. They were not standing with their colleagues, because they had all apparently drawn the short straws and had been sent to negotiate with the angry parents.

Fortunately, the parents at Dewey were successful in their mission, at least for now. The inventory team’s scheduled visits to two other schools were indefinitely postponed after Wednesday’s standoff.

As the situation unfolds in Chicago, we would do well to remember that it’s not happening in isolation. As Philadelphia reels from the recent decision to close 23 schools, teachers in Mexico are confronting legislation somewhat similar to No Child Left Behind.

We would do well to follow the lead of the brave students in Chicago, who are reaching out to others even in the midst of their own crisis. If students and teachers, supported by our communities, stand up against the madness, we can take back public education from coast to coast. As Barrett pointed out, “there have been so many tinderboxes that we don’t know if the whole thing’s going to go up.”

Iris Kirsch

Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.