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 reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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