Chicago school closings: Shuttering these institutions is shortsighted, says one local mom
Chicago school closings are the largest number of school closings in the history of the country, and media reports haven't captured the anguish and dismay of more than 30,000 children and parents as they've lost their educational institutions.
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This scene was played out all over the city. But then something happened – something that happens when communities feel threatened. Instead of feeling isolated and under attack, parents from closing schools organized, talked to each other. They began with a series of marches, challenging Mayor Rahm Emanuel to “walk the walk” their children will have to walk to their new schools. The mayor didn’t show, but parents from around the city went from school to school in solidarity, sometimes 300 showing up in a neighborhood they may never have visited before.Skip to next paragraph
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They were retired teachers and students; union members supporting the thousands of lunchroom workers and engineers who would lose their jobs; grandmothers marched beside pierced and tattooed Occupy students; and parents of children in elite “selective enrollment” schools not on any hit lists who came carrying signs saying “Every Chicago Public School is My School.”
I marveled every time I participated in one of these events. These people rallied because they know the binding institution in any community is the neighborhood school. This is known by businesspeople, promoted by real estate agents, accepted by children, and desired by most people.
The Board of Education says that demographics have changed, money is not there, and school closings are inevitable. They cluck sympathetically that “change is hard” in a tone so condescending I wouldn’t dare try it on my teenager. But I suggest to them that they are the ones who must change.
For example, they did not visit Matthew Henson Elementary School, a so-called “underutilized” school with a population that is 100 percent low income, where 12 percent of the children are homeless. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials say it is only 32 percent utilized. However, in the “unused” classrooms, they have a parent resource center, a computer lab, a science room, a music room, a library, a full-service health clinic, and a visiting food pantry. Another classroom is used for small group interventions, and yet another serves as after-school space for teens.
When Henson closes, not only will the receiving school become overcrowded but these vitally needed services will not be available to the community.
Is this not shortsighted? Once upon a time in the baby boom years, this school may have adequately served a much larger population. I would argue, whatever the population’s size, this school is adequately serving the needs of the community.
Unlike the Lawndale neighborhood where Henson is located, people in my neighborhood have a lot of choices when it comes to schools. In addition to quality public schools, we have a Montessori school, the elite University of Chicago Laboratory School (once attended by the Obama girls, schools chief Arne Duncan, and now Mayor Emanuel’s kids), and a Catholic school. One of the reasons we were unsuccessful at keeping Canter open was that many of the students were from outside the boundaries. They come to this school from other neighborhoods because it is a safe school in a safe neighborhood.
As a community we welcomed them, but now we’re told that we cannot.
The thousands of people fighting against this know it’s not about boundaries and numbers, it’s about what unites a neighborhood and how they relate to the one institution. Many of these schools are uniquely suited to the neighborhood and population.
What’s happening is more than a news blip. The one-room schoolhouse changed with the changing needs of the population. It’s time to seriously rethink how neighborhood schools and public education align with the democratic principles of freedom and inalienable human rights.
I know... change is hard, but it’s time.
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