Shutting Down the (Closed) Schools to Prison Pipeline

Kari Lydersen

Fredrick Dennis got his start at Paderewski Elementary.

The colorful tile mosaic on the wall of Ignace Paderewski Elementary School says Knowledge is Power.”

On Monday evening, Fredrick Dennis, 19, joined a crowd of several hundred students, parents and activists protesting the closure of Paderewski. Dennis said he loved attending the school, which was one of almost 50 public schools closed last year that served mostly African American students. There has been much outcry about the school closings. But Monday’s protest and rally added a new angle — students and activists denounced what they describe as the schools-to-prison pipeline.

They framed the school closings as part of a system where they say youth are treated as numbers, subject to standardized tests and overly harsh discipline at school, harassed — or often arrested — by police in their neighborhoods, and ignored when they try to present their concerns to those in power. 

Taking away these schools is like taking away our lives,” said Dennis, who graduated from Paderewski in 2009. Taking this school away is like saying forget about our youth.”

The protest was part of a national week of action against incarcerating youth. The group marched the three miles from from Paderewski to the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center, which was under federal control until recently to address overcrowding and a host of other violations.

These things are interconnected,” said Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA, sponsor of the event.

The students and youth leaders called for the closing of the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center. Kaba described the fact that the population of youth in detention statewide is down by more than half since the 1990s as a partial victory. Speakers drew connections between the privatization of detention facilities and of schools, as Chicago is opening more charter schools while neighborhood public schools are being closed. 

When you close a school and open a prison, a lot of people who don’t look like me make a lot of money,” said said Malcolm London, part of the national campaign BYP100, convened by the Black Youth Project.

The mass school closings have been part of the intense ongoing showdown between the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, backed by his appointed school board. The closings meant several thousand teachers and staff were laid off, though the CTU, in the midst of organizing around pensions, did not have a visible presence at the rally. But the protest Monday, like the many community hearings held on the school closings, showed that students feel just as passionately about the loss of their schools and their teachers. 

The students themselves had more than enough to say about how school closings have affected them. 

Dennis spent two years in the temporary juvenile detention center himself, and told Working In These Times he believes the closures have left impacted students with a greater risk of getting caught up in the criminal justice system. 

When you have to travel outside your neighborhood there are safety hazards, you don’t know what neighborhoods have problems,” said Dennis, who is studying industrial engineering in college now. You are more likely to feel like you have to be in a gang to have protection.”

The closing of schools was framed as part of a reform movement meant to give parents more choice.” But another former Paderewski student, De’Angelo Terry, 14, told Working In These Times he feels students were denied the right to choose in the school closings. 

They didn’t listen to what we had to say,” he said. They don’t respect our comments, they don’t care what we do.”

We did all this stuff here,” Terry added, gesturing at the mosaic, which students helped create. They shouldn’t have closed it.”

Paderewski students in grade four through eight were sent to Rosario Castellanos Elementary school.

Terry and his friend Kenneth Strong, both of whom are African American, say they’ve experienced racism at Castellanos, which is mostly Latino. Paderewski, the only school in the Pilsen-Little Village area to be closed, was also the only school in the neighborhood that was majority African American. The other schools, including Castellanos, are mostly Latino.

Strong and Terry say school officials seem not to care about the gang and racial tensions in the area; they believe those tensions were exacerbated by closing Paderewski. Strong said he was in a fight with other students at Castellanos after another student used the n-word,” but he was the only student to be disciplined. Strong said he had previously wanted to transfer into Paderewski from Castellanos, only to learn Paderewski was closing. Strong acknowledges that enrollment was low at Paderewski — one of the reasons the City gave for closing certain schools. But during the hearings on the school closings plan, parents and students made clear that they felt the relationships and history they had developed at certain schools were more important than a bottom line made less efficient by lower enrollment. 

Strong and Terry said school officials seem not to care about the gang and racial tensions in the area, which he thinks were exacerbated by closing Paderewski. Strong said he fought with other students at Castellanos after another student used the n word,” but only he was disciplined. Strong said he had previously wanted to transfer into Paderewski from Castellanos, only to learn Paderewski was closing. He knows enrollment was low at Paderewski – one of the reasons given for closing certain schools – but as many parents and students testified at the hearings on school closings, he thinks the powerful relationships and history at such neighborhood schools should count for more than enrollment numbers. 

The speakers blamed Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board for carrying out the school closing despite massive community outcry, and they blasted his decision to open a new public school named for President Barack Obama in a gentrifying neighborhood on the North Side near where the famous Cabrini-Green public housing project was torn down, displacing many poor African American families.

You don’t close schools in black and brown neighborhoods then open a new Barack Obama school on the grave of Cabrini-Green,” said London.

Amara Enyia, who is running against Emanuel in the February 2015 election, said the protest showed how people are still furious about the school closings and the way they were carried out. The school closings are likely among the reasons that in a recent poll only 29 percent of Chicago voters said they would vote for Emanuel if an election were held today, and only 8 percent of African American voters polled. Ten percent of all voters polled said they would vote for Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis for mayor, though Lewis has not said she is running. Enyia was not included in the poll. She acknowledges that at a relatively young age without significant campaign donations or powerful backers, her candidacy may be a longshot. But she thinks events like the Monday rally show how hungry people are for a change of leadership.

The people of the city are not feeling heard,” Enyia said outside Paderewski. You have all these rallies and actions, that seem to be falling on deaf ears. (Emanuel) should be out here. If he could just see these students doing poetry and speaking out here, maybe it would change his mind. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt. But people are definitely ready for something different.”

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%.

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