Chicago teachers hit the streets on their historic strike, September 2012. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)
Chicago officials announced last week that they plan to close fifty-four under-enrolled schools this year in the country’s third-largest district to help close a $1 billion budget deficit. It is the largest mass district closing of schools ever in the United States, and the announcement quickly inspired outrage among teachers, parents and activists.
A teacher I spoke to, who worked at one of the schools marked for closures, expressed concern that the “welcoming schools” students will be transferred to lack social and emotional support systems to aid the students’ transition, and that some of the schools are far across gang territory, making the commute to the new schools more perilous than it already is in a city with infamous gun violence.
President of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Karen Lewis, declared, “Closing 50 of our neighborhood schools is outrageous and no society that claims to care about its children can sit back and allow this to happen to them. There is no way people of conscience will stand by and allow these people to shut down nearly a third of our school district without putting up a fight. Most of these campuses are in the Black community. Since 2001 88% of students impacted by CPS School Actions are African-American. And this is by design.”
Lewis added, “These actions unnecessarily expose our students to gang violence, turf wars and peer-to-peer conflict. Some of our students have been seriously injured as a result of school closings. One died. Putting thousands of small children in harm’s way is not laudatory.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel described the closings as tough, but needed.
“If we don’t make these changes, we haven’t lived up to our responsibility as adults to the children of the city of Chicago. And I did not run for office to shirk my responsibility,” he said.
Emanuel was out of town when schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett made the closures announcement.
Many activists have called the proposal a racist decision that targets black, Latino and low-income communities, since the closures are happening mostly in poor black neighborhoods.
“I don’t see any Caucasians being moved, bussed or murdered in the streets as they travel along gang lines, or stand on the steps of a CPS school,” said activist Wendy Matil Pearson as opponents of the school closing plans protested outside Horatio May Elementary Community Academy in the Austin neighborhood.