CHICAGO — “We’re counting on you!” said middle-schooler Marcos Reyes to the row of Chicago Public Schools officials seated in front of a packed auditorium.
Voice cracking, Reyes, dressed in his ROTC uniform, continued, “My parents have been here for seven years working hard for me so I can have a better future … and you guys can stand here and close my school. I don’t really think that is fair!”
The hundreds of students, parents and teachers in attendance jumped to their feet, clapping and cheering as the Madero Middle School student wiped tears from below his glasses.
The Wednesday night gathering in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood is one of 28 public hearings being held by the Chicago Board of Education about its bid to save money by closing public schools dubbed “under-utilized.”
The board has not said how many schools will be closed. Analyses by the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Teachers Union and parent groups indicate that 100 or more schools could meet the board’s definition of “under-utilized.” Schools officials have indicated the number will be much lower, without giving specifics.
Many parents and teachers — whose union carried out a historic nine-day strike in September — think the planned closings are intrinsically linked to the administration’s plans to open up to 60 new privately run charter schools. The Chicago Teachers Union, like teachers unions nationwide, sees the opening of non-union charter schools as a way to undercut organized labor. Hence charter schools were a major subtext to the fall strike, though the union has no official power to bargain over them.
The stated reasoning behind closing public “community schools” — distinct from other public schools such as charters, magnets and selective-enrollment schools — and opening private charters funded with public money is that, based on student standardized scores, the community schools are inefficient and failing. Supporters of the Chicago community schools say that the administration is not taking into account the many measures of success that don’t show up on standardized tests; and that it is also not giving them adequate support and resources to reach their potential.
“You should be working with us to make [community schools] better, not closing them down,” said a mother of students at Telpochcalli School, an arts-focused public school in the nearby neighborhood of Little Village. “Where’s [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel? He wants charter schools. He should be here telling us from his heart to our faces why he wants these charter schools…Why?”
From the crowd, voices yelled out, “Money!” “His rich friends!”
Parents, teachers and students spoke passionately about the academic achievements of their community schools, the dedication of the teachers and the creative programs — like mariachi band and folkloric dance — that schools have launched despite a severe lack of resources and a student body facing many challenges outside school.
That describes the four Pilsen elementary schools on the list of more than 100 schools that meet the administration’s definition of under-utilized, meaning they could be targeted for closure. Three of them —Finkl, Pilsen Community Academy and Jungman—have student populations that are close to 100 percent low-income and almost entirely Latino, with 30-50 percent speaking limited English. The other Pilsen elementary school, Paderewski, has an 81 percent African-American student body that is also almost exclusively low-income. All the schools also have a significant percentage of special education students and students with disabilities.
Young students at the meeting from Peter Cooper Elementary Dual Language Academy, dressed in Cooper Jaguars T-shirts, held heart-shaped signs saying “I Love Cooper” and noting “>60 Percent Bilingual” and “>10 Percent Special Education.” The education journal Catalyst reported that a third of the schools under consideration for closure have special education “cluster” programs, meaning special education and autistic students – and special education teachers – could be disproportionately impacted by closures.
Several speakers described how the number-crunching used to label schools as under-utilized doesn’t do justice to the reality of schools that are actually in some cases still overcrowded; where classrooms the board considers unused are actually being used for science labs or parent programs; and where smaller classes of special education students who require extra attention are skewing the numbers.
Periodically, the speakers were drowned out by the sound of pounding on the doors of the auditorium and the chants of “Let us in!” from more than a hundred parents and community members outside who did not make it into the over-capacity auditorium.
The outpouring showed the strength of community sentiment against the school closings. During the teachers strike, parents and teachers allied over the issue of closings, which were seen as part of a larger battle over the future of public education and the role of privatized charter schools.
During the strike, Emanuel frequently accused teachers of endangering students — by causing school days to be cancelled — and putting their own interests before students’ well-being. Testimony at the Wednesday hearing from parents and students contradicted this view.
Madero student Natalie Torres described teachers constantly staying after school voluntarily to work with students. “They waste their own time and get no money, they do it for free, and yet you are going to fire them?” she said.
“If they give up on us, we’ll give up on ourselves,” she also told the crowd. “Closing down our school is closing down millions of futures.”
Marta Ramirez, mother of two students at Jungman Elementary, said her daughter asks her “morning, afternoon and night” what is going to happen to her school.
“My question to all of you, is how can you guarantee the physical and emotional safety of our children?” asked Ramirez.
The two aldermen representing the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods both promised to fight against any closings of schools in the neighborhoods. The crowd cheered for Alderman Ricardo Munoz, part of the small progressive caucus on the city council, before and after he promised to “fight arduously against any closings or consolidations because we deserve our community schools.” Alderman Danny Solis, a close ally of the mayor, was booed loudly when he took the floor, but then people applauded when he promised to oppose closings of Pilsen schools.
A list of schools to be closed was supposed to be finalized by January, under state law, but Chicago officials successfully petitioned the state legislature for more time so that an independent commission could study the matter. Among the commission’s recommendations, released in an interim report Jan. 10, [WHEN?], were that no high schools be closed, because of the risk of increased gang violence when students are transferred; and that no schools which have undergone tumultuous consolidation or “turn around” proceedings in the recent past be closed.
The board will release a list of schools to be closed on March 31, and an interim list in mid-February after concluding the hearings. Then they will hold another series of public hearings on the schools officially planned for closure.
Catalyst revealed that the school closings hearings were funded, to the tune of $478,000, by a major proponent of charter schools – and a major opponent of unions: the Walton Family Foundation, affiliated with Wal-Mart. The foundation’s largest grant for charter schools is going to Chicago. Catalyst reporter Sarah Karp also revealed that the consulting firm retained by the city to provide advice on the closings meetings, the Civic Consulting Alliance, received a separate $220,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation and is housed in the same offices as a pro-charter organization, New Schools for Chicago.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is in the process of recruiting a retired Marine with experience negotiating prisoner exchanges in Kosovo to help students transition safely to their new schools. The symbolism was not lost on some parents and teachers, who have said students and families face extreme stress and danger when switching schools.
“There’s going to be more gangbanging if you close our schools,” said Torres. “You guys will have to spend more money to hire more cops.”
Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Pilsen and member of the Chicago Teacher Union’s governing progressive Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), noted that Byrd-Bennett and the mayor were not at Wednesday’s meeting.
“Where is Rahm Emanuel, who is the puppet master of all of this?” she asked. “If they are not here, what does that say about how much they value our input?”
“The board is not asking us whether or not school closings are a valid option,” she continued. “They’re asking us which schools should we close. They’re asking us to plan our own funeral. Are we going to let them do this?”
“No!” people yelled.
“The board is a constant revolving door: You stay a couple years, closing our schools, privatizing our schools and making money off our tears,” said Chambers. “But we are here, and our schools are here to stay.”
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.