Over the summer, the Chicago Board of Education held a vote whether to shut fifty-four schools. Ultimately, the board voted to close fifty schools, a controversial decision that drew criticism from the city’s teachers union, parents, and students. Of the students affected by the closures, 88 percent are black, 10 percent Hispanic, and 94 percent come form low income households.
The city, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel dismissed concerns that the closures are a form of racial discrimination by promising students would have access to better facilities in what are called “welcoming schools.” Though some students and parents expressed concern that children would have to walk longer distances, oftentimes through dangerous parts of the city in order to reach their new schools, officials promised all the hassle would be worth it because the old, “bad” schools would be gone.
President of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Karen Lewis was skeptical from the beginning:
“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.”
But while the solution was tough, Emanuel insisted it was necessary:
“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.
Now, Chicago students and parents are beginning to fully comprehend the consequences of the closures and “welcoming schools,” and unsurprisingly, their real-life experiences are vastly different to city officials’ claims. Some Chicago families complain of overcrowding and an overall lack of support during the transition.
Devion Allen, an eighth grader, used to attend Lafayette Elementary, a school Allen describes as being “like a family.” In an interview with the AP, Allen said, “It’s not fair” in response to the city’s plans to turn the empty building into an arts high school operated as a contract school, publicly funded but privately run.
Allen now attends a “welcoming school,” The Choplin School, which is so overcrowded that the staff has been forced to give up on promised transitional provisions like a computer lab, the library, and art and music rooms. The AP also reports that the school’s psychologist, occupational therapist, and speech pathologist are working in windowless, unvented spaces that were formerly storage closets.