The Chicago Board of Education made American history on May 22 when it voted to close 50 public schools. Despite citywide protest Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials maintain that the closures will help them operate the district more efficiently and resolve its debt.
The board unanimously voted to close 49 schools, with one school, Von Humboldt Elementary, being closed by a 4-2 vote. The board also voted to replace the staff at five elementary schools and to have 23 schools share 11 buildings. Although the number of schools on the list had been shaved down over the last few months, 50 is still an unprecedented number.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said CPS will be judged critically when people recall this historical event.
“I hope you can live with it, (because) you are on the wrong side of history,” Lewis said to the board.
During the meeting, Lewis said she was willing to work with CPS on an education plan but after the school closing vote she said, “…clearly we have to change the political landscape in this city.”
She announced CTU’s campaign to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel, do away with a mayor-appointed school board and return to an elected school board.
At the board meeting elected officials, parents, teachers, students and education advocacy groups from across the city spoke out in protest. Many of the speakers yelled out at the board in anger and had to be escorted out of the meeting for staging sit-ins at the podium.
The public comments section of the meeting, which has a strict two-minute rule, was preceded by comments from nine aldermen that spoke on the behalf of their communities against the closings.
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said the Bronzeville neighborhood has been the target of previous school actions, which has caused the number of schools in her ward to go down from 27 to 14.
“My hope is that CPS will invest in the future of the kids in Bronzeville,” Dowell said. “No more school actions, we need to adjust to what has already been done.”
Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) said she did not like the CPS community hearings and meetings because it caused the schools in her ward to fight against each other to stay open.
“My community was scrapping for survival against one another it was disheartening and has left a tainted environment,” Graham said. “I was excited at seeing the STEM and AP programs come into the community but I didn’t know it was going to be at the price of school closings. CPS did listen but they listened the way they wanted to not the way the community needed them to listen.”
Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) said his community presented CPS with a plan for the schools in their neighborhood so that his neighborhood would not be without public neighborhood elementary schools.
“We didn’t just say don’t close our schools, we said 'here’s the plan, use the plan,'” Moreno said.
Moreno said the loss of Despres, Von Humboldt and Lafayette schools has left no public schools in the East Humboldt Park community.
“You have the blood of the children on your hands,” said Shannon Bennett, member of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), who along with several other members of KOCO were escorted out of the meeting for refusing to move away from the podium after their two minute time limit expired and for yelling out in protest.
KOCO and several other communities have spoken out about safety issues including the concern of children who would have to cross different gang territories to get to school. CPS said it would work with the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Transit Authority to create safe passage. CPS is also providing shuttle services to and from closed schools to receiving schools before and after school for one year.
Parents 4 Teachers, a coalition of parents from neighborhoods across the city, were also escorted from the podium after locking arms in protest of school closings and chanting “Every school is our school.”
“There are too many schools closing, not enough capacity in the schools that are staying open, no engagement with the community,” said Joy Clendenning, CPS parent who joined Parents 4 Teachers in protest. “There is a lot of misinformation and it’s being used to justify this. They need to stop and the mayor needs to stop.”
The number of neighborhood elementary schools citywide will decrease to 344 down from almost 400 about 10 years ago. CPS said it will offer International Baccalaureate, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) or fine arts programs to schools that will welcome new students next school year. They will also get extra resources such as iPads and upgrades to their facilities including air conditioning, tuck pointing, science labs and libraries.
CPS is now working on getting all displaced students enrolled in new schools before May 31.