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Chicago's Black Students Face Massive School Closures

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaking about the planned closing of 54 public schools

Last week, Chicago Public Schools announced a massive restructuring that has been described as “the largest shakeup ever attempted in one year by a major urban school district.”

The district announced that it was closing 54 schools and 61 buildings and leaving the future of more than 1,000 teachers in doubt. “The shutdowns would affect 30,000 students, almost all in kindergarten through eighth grade and most now attending poorly performing schools in African-American neighborhoods on the South and West sides where enrollment has sagged in recent years,” reported the Chicago Tribune.

As we reported last week, nearly 90 percent of the students in the closed schools will be Black. The proposed closings contrast to citywide data, where only 41.7 percent of CPS students are Black.

 “This is definitely a race and class issue,” Wanda Hopkins, education coordinator of the South Austin Coalition Community Council, told EBONY.com. “We’re fighting this.”

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett maintains the proposed closures are based not on race but on “capacity”—and says many schools on the city’s South and West Sides have lost students.

Chicago has the dubious distinction of being “the most racially segregated city in the country, according to Census data. The city lost a significant amount of its Black population—some 17 percent or about 181,000 people—between 2000 and 2010. Many Blacks moved to the suburbs or down South—especially after “the city [demolished] eighty-two public-housing high-rises citywide,” reported Harper’s in May 2012. Meanwhile, the city’s White and Latino populations have increased.

The nation’s third-largest school district faces a $1 billion deficit by summer.  CPS maintains the closings will save $560 million in capital costs and an additional $43 million in operating costs over the next 10 years.

The “math” behind the closure announcement is somewhat confusing but here is a breakdown: CPS plans to close 52 elementary schools at the end of this school year. Another grade school will be closed over two years. One more school will lose its high school program. “CPS also announced it will turn around six more schools for academic reasons and pair schools — including several charter schools — in 11 more buildings,” added the Sun-Times.

The Austin neighborhood on the city’s West Side are among “the communities that would have the most closings,” reported Catalyst, the city’s well-respected journal on urban education.  In addition to Austin, the neighborhoods affected most by the closings are West Town, Auburn Gresham, Austin, West Englewood and West Pullman—described by the Chicago Sun-Times as among the city’s “poorest communities.” These are also among the city’s “most violent neighborhoods” and hard-hit by gang violence, as reported last week at EBONY.com.

Chicago has become the epicenter of national discourse over gun violence, though the sympathy and horror alloted to victims of mass shootings in Aurora and Newtown evade the city. Black youth have been hardest hit:  “More young people are killed in Chicago than any other American city,” notes the Chicago Reporter, a local investigative journal. From 2008 to 2012, “more than 530 youth [were] killed in Chicago with nearly 80 percent....on the city’s South and West Sides.”

The city had 52 homicides in the first seven weeks of 2013 “and 12 of them were teenagers,” added the Red Line Project.

CPS maintains that extra money will be allocated for school buses, police and other safety resources—but parents and community advocates  are not impressed. “What about the seventh and eighth graders who may be known to the gangs—or their family members could have gang ties? They are moving into a school in different ‘territories’,” the South Austin Community Coalition’s Wanda Hopkins told EBONY.com.

The closures are a “time bomb waiting to explode,” Alderman Walter Burnett from the city’s hard-hit West Side told the Sun-Times. Burnett noted two schools are being consolidated “that have been ‘fighting since I was a kid.”

Burnett, other alderman and community organizations have criticized CPS for offering additional resources to schools that will remain open. "They're talking about giving me [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] programs and air conditioning for my schools," Burnett told the Tribune. "They should have been doing these things already.”

“CPS now says they will put air conditioning and libraries in all the schools that will accept the new students,” Hopkins told EBONY.com. “Our children have been suffering for decades. If we have a $1 billion deficit, where will they get the money for this?”

Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News, NBC and FOX, the Atlantic, EBONY, the Los Angeles Times, the Advocate and others. Read his award winning site Rod 2.0. Follow him on Twitter: @RodMcCullom