Chicago's planned school closures met with skepticism

Some parents, students, and activists, still dealing with the fallout from 2013 closures, fear that the plan will displace hundreds of mostly black and poor students. Closures have long been a method for cities to deal with underperforming schools, but research shows mixed results.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
A locked gate keeps people out of the closed Benjamin E. Mays elementary school in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago on Jan. 18. City officials pitched mass 2013 school closures, including Benjamin E. Mays's, as cost saving measures. Now, they are emphasizing that proposed closures will be beneficial for students.

Five years after the largest mass closure of public schools in an American city, Chicago is forging ahead with a plan to shutter four more in one of the city's highest-crime and most impoverished areas.

School officials are pitching the new closures around Englewood, a neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, to make way for a new $85 million school they insist will better serve students and reverse low enrollment. But some parents, students, and activists are skeptical, saying they're still reeling from the 2013 closures and the latest plan will make things worse, including the displacement of hundreds of mostly black and poor teenagers.

"The last thing they should do is close our schools," said Miracle Boyd, a student at John Hope College Prep, which could close. "They aren't the ones sitting in those chairs five days a week struggling to learn because we don't have the necessities we need as students.... Why not use the $85 million to improve our education and get our schools on the road to success?"

Like other cities, Chicago has long relied on closures to address underperforming and underutilized schools. Significant closures have taken place in Philadelphia, Detroit, and St. Louis, but Chicago made history when it closed roughly 50 schools, affecting more than 12,000 students in mostly African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

The debate over Chicago's latest proposed closures has exploded, with shouting matches and emotional pleas during community meetings. Residents have pleaded with the district to invest more in neighborhood schools and safety. Some have alleged that racial politics are at play. And they worry by pulling students out of schools near their homes and placing them in ones farther away, they are putting them in danger of gang members who will view them as the enemy just by virtue of their address.

Chicago Public Schools says nothing is final until an expected Feb. 28 board vote. The nation's third-largest school district argues it's tried to boost enrollment and resources to the four schools, but it hasn't helped.

The changes coincide with a major drop in black residents. Roughly 180,000 people moved from Chicago from 2000 to 2010, according to census data. In Englewood, about 10 miles from downtown, fewer than 500 students are enrolled in the four schools. As a result, one freshmen class has only 17 students and another school doesn't offer science.

"We have to move these kids. They don't have enough support in these buildings," schools chief Janice Jackson said. "We can't sit by and continue to watch people leave."

The new school, which would open in 2019, will enroll only freshmen at the beginning, and upperclassmen will be left to attend nearby schools. The district expects to spend millions on the transition, including on individualized plans to help students at risk of dropping out, paid summer job programs, and possible shuttle buses to transport students.

Research on the benefits of school closures is mixed. In 2017, the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder compiled research finding that even when students transferred to higher-performing schools, those students saw an achievement drop in the first year and marginal gains later on.

"There's no ground to stand on for saying this will improve the educational opportunities," said Pauline Lipman, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who has studied closures.

Chicago Public Schools officials disagree.

With past closures, they've emphasized cost savings. This time, they've pitched the proposal as a more desirable option for students. Renderings of the new school tout outdoor sports facilities and a community health center. City officials say it complements other recent investment in Englewood, including a new lower-cost Whole Foods.

But critics, including neighborhood activists and unions, say the district didn't do enough to address problems it helped create and there's a lack of trust, especially after two consecutive Chicago Public Schools leaders left office under scandal. The Chicago Teachers Union blames the city's push for charter schools. Roughly 90 percent of Englewood's students travel beyond neighborhood boundaries for school.

Experts say property values will drop, vacant buildings are magnets for street crime, and sending students to new schools could put their lives at risk.

"What people don't understand is that if you are 16 years old and get on a bus, when you get off that bus you are gang-affiliated whether you are gang-affiliated or not," said activist Jitu Brown.

Tensions between students from different Chicago neighborhoods attending the same school have erupted in violence before. In 2009, honor student Derrion Albert was fatally beaten after getting caught in the middle of such a clash. The attack involving students from Fenger High School on Chicago's South Side was captured on cellphone video that was viewed online worldwide.

In Englewood, crime is still high despite a significant drop in homicides and shootings there last year. The violence that remains is startling considering the dwindling population. Demographers say Englewood's population decreased from 59,000 residents in 1980 to 26,000 by 2015. In 2016, there were 86 homicides in Englewood, up from 37 the year before.

The Chicago district has had trouble selling and repurposing buildings since 2013 and had to loosen guidelines for potential buyers. There are now about 27 schools on that list, but more than a dozen remain empty, including several in Englewood.

Among them is Yale Elementary School, which singing and acting star Jennifer Hudson attended. The eerily quiet brick building sits near boarded-up homes and empty lots. Letters on the school sign have fallen off.

Under the new proposal, one school would remain vacant, two would be taken over by existing charter schools, and one would be demolished for the new school.

Not everyone opposes the district's plan.

"It would be a catalyst for new growth in the area. It gives us something that we can build on, here in Englewood," said Theodria Constanoplis. 

She has lived in Englewood most of her life, and one of her grandchildren could attend the new school.

Still, some educators remain skeptical, saying the closures mark the end of an era.

Harper High School theater teacher Michael Buino said his students can compete with those who attend schools considered to be Chicago's best. Michelle Obama, who is from Chicago, visited Harper High in 2013 while still first lady.

"Come to my classroom and see for yourselves," Buino said at a recent community forum. "And then tell me Harper is not worth saving."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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