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'We Are Not a Failing School!' | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

'We Are Not a Failing School!'


Teachers, students and parents protest the plan to close 54 Chicago public schools. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast.)

I've been watching a lot of adolescents cry these days. First it was twelve-year-old Jasmine Murphy, on a media bus tour led by the Chicago Teachers Union to demonstrate the devastation likely to follow from Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to close fifty-four schools. She was relating how she felt when the elementary school she loved and in which she had thrived was shuttered in 2011. Then, this week, all over town, Chicago Public School bureaucrats have sat before hearings to hear public comment on each individual school set to close this coming September. In my neighborhood, Hyde Park, I joined seventy-five or so community members who sat—and, angrily, stood—in an auditorium at Kenwood Academy High School, six blocks directly east of Barack Obama's family home, to address the closing of a middle school next door known as Canter Leadership Academy. The whole thing pretty much went down like this. Picture a tough-looking black teenage boy. His name is Shane Ellis. Shane takes the microphone for his allotted two minutes. He begins listing all the schools he's attended in Chicago. He says, "Of all these schools, Canter is the only one that showed it actually cared." He relates a story about the principal telling him that given all the things he's been through in his life and with his family it's a testament to his depth of character that he can carry on at school all.

It is upon that recollection that Shane breaks down. A pal approaches, comforts him; Shane breaks down again, overcome, overwhelmed, beside himself. He can't continue. He leaves the hall, head hung low. That's how much losing his school means to him.

Imagine stories like this happening again and again and again. That was how I spent last Friday evening. An earlier hearing a week ago about the same school drew two hundred community members and was, I'm told even more passionate than this.

The question of whether a school like Canter closes down, as the school board wants, or stays open, as the community overwhelmingly desires, will provide a case study for whether the mayor's school closing plan can truly serve the city's children, parents, teachers in any sort of humane way. It also offers a window into the larger meaning of what the billionaire stats-besotted ideologues driving what our benighted political discourse insists on labeling education "reformers" have in mind for the rest of the country. By the Gradgrindian statistical reckoning of Rahm Emanuel's school board, Canter's closing is an open and shut case: it is a "Level 3" school, the system's lowest rating; if it closes, its students will be spread across two schools all the way across the neighborhood that both rate as Level 2. Which, on paper, looks like an obvious improvement. At the hearing, though, it becomes plain that absolutely none of the stakeholders involved—students, parents, staff, and assorted community members, all of whom unanimously and passionately speak against the closing—see this as an improvement. What they tell is the kind of stories statistics don't know how to register.

Diane Hamm, a theater artist and wife of a Canter teacher, who speaks third, gave an especially articulate summary as to why: a "school is a microcultural environment in itself." Canter being an especially "safe, caring, and vibrant" such environment, closing it "simply creates chaos." Her husband, she says, "has taught in many school environments that were not as supportive," including ones in neighborhoods of great privilege; Canter, by contrast, by hard work and by design, maintains a community and is maintained by a community. Another wife of a Canter teacher provides an illustration as to how: "students who've been randomly dropping by his classroom for twenty-one years because they know where he'll be." Their family runs into families of these kids while walking the family dog, shopping at Hyde Park Produce; all are embedded in "a community that transcends the school environment." This is one thing would be lost.

Here is another. There are other students who do not come from this particular neighborhood, and speak to the school's value yet more eloquently. For they come from much worse neighborhoods, their parents having busted their tails to get their kids into this safe, caring, and vibrant environment (one parent described how she risked homelessness so her kids could get educated there)—where, like Shane, they consistently thrive. The fact that a school like Canter gets a "low" rating seems a paradoxical testament to strength: it is a welcoming school—it welcomes bad students, and makes them better.

I use the word welcoming with irony: "welcoming schools" is the slyly Orwellian phrase used to describe the buildings where kids from closed schools are being shunted off to. But community, a speaker says, that precious, delicate thing, "does not transfer to a welcoming school."

Over and over, students at the hearing attest to the transformations this supposedly "failing" community has worked in their educations. "All my teachers are the best people I've met in my life," says a kid named Elizabeth Johnson, who graduated on to a college preparatory high school. She starts sobbing, then addresses the panel directly: "What type of people are you?" She names her teachers one by one—Mr. Fishbein, Mr. Papczun, Mr. Paranjape, Mr. Windsor (a wizardly math teacher who helped eighteen out of twenty students in his algebra advanced placement class last year test out of high school algebra): "They've changed my life! It's outrageous that you're going against the community and the kids and the teachers! I just don't understand."

Mr. Papczun tells of students relating to him their victimization by gangs at other schools, and how safe they feel at this one: "I think we really save these kids.... And this is going to be lost.... We are not a failing school! We are a great school!" A kid named Jose, a salutatorian and honor roll member, asks of his "better" school, "Would I be valued at that school just like Canter valued me?" (He walks back from the microphone, and Mr. Fishbein gives him a fist-bump.) A student says she never learned anything at her last school because of all the bullying (bullies aren't tolerated at Canter), and because there were forty students in her class ("And I understand that's why you want to close Canter!"—because there aren't forty students in every class). A kid named Darius testifies that he got all F's on his report card at his last school "in all the easiest subjects. But this year, as I came to Canter, it actually changed me. This year, I'm actually working on all the things that are inside me." He concludes, "We really, really love this community. We're all in this together." Can't have that.

A pastor points to a word obsessing the city's black South and West Sides these days: violence. He turns it around, and applies it to the school-closing process itself: "This act seems violent to me. Without warning. It is a violent act." He gets a large measure of applause: "The question is, have you all taken into consideration the violence of this act itself?" A charter school guidance counselor speaks up and gives his name, first and last—despite the fact, he says, "I could lose my job for being here." He says he has to be here: it's about community. A nervous student ("I'm shaking") says, "I'm from East Africa, and I'm from a community where it takes a village to raise a child. And when I got to Canter—"

She stops. Yes, she starts crying. Mr. Fishbein moves to comfort her.

She continues: "When I came here I lost the sense of a village raising me, but when I got to Canter I got the feeling of every teacher...replacing that spot.... I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Canter." She then tells the story of a fellow student, who had never been interested in art, being guided to find a gift for it within herself. "And that's all thanks to Canter.... And I can't believe they're closing this school that made me what I am today."

Now the student council vice president comforts her, and leads her back to her seat. It all would have made for dramatic video. City Hall apparently knows this all too well. Before the meeting, when a man in front of me begins setting his camera atop a tripod, a large fellow rushes forth to inform him no video recording is allowed. The man with the camera agrees to comply. I ask the security man the reason for the rule. He says it's a policy of the school board. The man with the camera continues setting it up—and the security guard dashes his way again. The cameraman assures the security man that he's setting the devise on its still-camera setting. Unsatisfied, the security guard asks him to prove it—and peers closely at the machine to make sure.

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The arrogance is the most grating part. The big public meeting at school headquarters on the closings is Wednesday. That, one speaker, a social worker at Canter, thunders, is a report card pickup day. "CPS is making us choose: going to the hearing to keep our schools open, or attending report-card pickup and conversing with the parents about our children's progress. Or maybe, just maybe, you don't want community input. Why else did you double-schedule these?" She addresses her last remark at the three bureaucrats before her: "People, tell me how you've allowed this to happen." They sit, stony, unresponsive. As they told the very first speaker, when she asked how they were going to prevent the abandoned Canter building from becoming a neighborhood eyesore, driving down property values, "We're not here to answer questions, we're only here to listen to your questions and take them back to [schools CEO] Barbara Byrd-Bennett."

There are murmurs; the scene is so bizarre as to almost be Kafkaesque. "So what's the purpose?" someone asks. But they can't answer that either; once more they implacably sit, Sphinx-like. And sit, and sit, and sit—as the tenor of the meeting gets angrier and angrier ("People coming in front of you crying ... greeted with silence?"). People begin feeling more and more helpless, and citizens start murmuring about how this all will change how they plan to vote. One parent suggests of the ESL interpreter, "It seems like she should turn around and do sign language to you guys." A graduate student says he will address the note-taker instead. Though he actually addresses them—with the school system officials: "If I were in your position I would actually be worried" about the system's "inveterate failure to live up to promises"—such as the promise that another neighborhood school, Kozminski Community Academy, which is on the system's "Track E" schedule, which means it is in session in summer, would get air conditioning and never did.

"Please conclude your remarks," the bureaucrat serving as master of ceremonies, CPS deputy chief of operations Tom Terrell, intones.

He's said that over and over at each speaker's two-minute point, and seems to do so with an especially robotic flatness—an almost ostentatious flatness—precisely during the testimonies that are most impassioned. (It sounds especially unmannerly when he does so to Evan Canter, the son of the community activist after which the school is named.) The only time one of the figures on the stage, CPS "Chief of Networks" Denise Little, showed signs of life was when a witness addressed our little mayor's imperious decision-making style: "What is he, an emperor?" She giggled. It must have been be tough, carrying out this farkakta assignment; I felt for those poor bureaucrats then—felt for them having to follow the dictates of this awful, awful man. (The other figures sitting at the table were Eric Pruitt, deputy chief of elementary schools—and the area's police commander, I guess in case a distraught twelve-year old rushed the stage.)

Rahm Emanuel is supposed to be some sort of political genius. The only thing he seems good at now is manufacturing enemies. ("This is not for the children ... you think we're dumb, Emanuel?": sustained applause.) Every week new stories come out completely undermining the system's claims that the school-closing plan will make students better off. Perhaps the most stunning was an investigation by the schools watchdog publication Catalyst Chicago demonstrating that eleven percent of the students whose schools closed between 2001 and 2006 simply disappeared from the system: no one knows where or whether they continued in school at all. Then came this: Chicago Public Radio's Linda Lutton noted that the city is borrowing $329 million to upgrade the receiving schools (despite announcing last year the system was too broke to approve more than a bare-bones capital budget). "A district spokesperson confirmed CPS did not factor in debt service costs when calculating savings to be achieved by closing schools."

This bad faith (the spokesman, noted Lutton, was "authorized to speak to media but not to have reporters print his name") has been politically galvanizing. At a table at the cafe where I write this six mothers busily plot their role in the campaign to save Canter. "You don't really know how a school is until you go to it," I overheard one. Later, an employee at a charter school who hears me talking about the hearing on the phone turns around and tells me about her own work fighting for the neighborhood schools. Meanwhile, through it all, amidst the obvious political collapse in Emanuel's position in the face of all this consternation, well-informed City Hall watchers I know scratch their heads. No one can figure out what the play is. Turn the buildings over to charter schools? But CPS promised that no charters would occupy closed schools. (The system abandons its promises all the time, but this one would be particularly embarrassing to break.) One particularly shrewd Rahm-watcher I know suggests they're doing it to get more federal money; but he's not sure, precisely, how that would work.

Then there is that nagging suspicion of a meta-explanation, one that feels almost too awful to contemplate. Destroying the village in order to save it, all in order to rebuild it on a more overclass-friendly foundation, Republican-style: Since the other ones simply don't add up, you're almost left with no choice but to entertain the idea. That would be, after all, how Rahm Emanuel rolls. Consider Bruce Rauner, the local leveraged-buyout titan who mentored Rahm's move into investment banking after he left the Clinton White House and before he ran for Congress. Since 2006, he's had a charter school named after himself, "Rauner College Prep." Rauner loves charter schools, and hates the Chicago Teachers Union. Rauner recently announced an exploratory committee to run for governor of Illinois as a Republican. The morning of the Canter hearing I noticed a tweet from him: "Thrilled to have FreedomWorks President & CEO Matt Kibbe join my exploratory committee." You know, Matt Kibbe: co-author of Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto. You know FreedomWorks: the right-wing front group that traces its lineage to David Koch, the one that produced the fake Hillary Clinton sex tape, the one in which the Secretary of State had oral sex performed on her by a person in a panda suit.

These are the types Rahm pals around with. Kids like Shane: well, I guess they can just go to hell.

In his previous post, Rick Perlstein looks at another infuriating policy with no apparent logic: The idea that tax cuts "pay for themselves," now debunked by none other than the National Review.

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