What Will the Closure of 61 Chicago School Buildings Mean for Kids?

A mass shutdown of public schools has caused an uproar among teachers and parents.

Seven-year-old Xochilt Fernandez leaves the Jean De Lafayette Elementary School with her parents on March 21, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The school is one of 61 slated to be closed by the city. (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

These are rocky times for Chicago public schools.

In February the Chicago Public Schools listed 129 elementary schools for possible closure based on utilization and performance.

On Thursday officials released a list of 54 school programs and 61 school buildings that will close this year, making it one of the largest school shutdowns in our nation's history. In addition to the closures, six low-performing schools will have their entire staff replaced.

It's the culmination of a battle between the school system and City Hall—especially Mayor Rahm Emanuel—as the city faces a $1 billion deficit. The mayor and district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett argue that the city has 500,000 seats for approximately 403,000 students, and that students from half-empty, low-performing schools would benefit from going to better ones.

But teachers, parents, and students disagree, countering that they want to stay at their current schools. Not only are the schools familiar, they say, but they are also the foundation of many of their communities.

Mark D. Naison, professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University, told TakePart that the decision to close schools is potentially disastrous.

"The greatest impact is on the city's most wounded neighborhoods, places already traumatized by violence," he said. "The last thing the families in these neighborhoods need is further destabilization by closing community institutions that in some cases have served these neighborhoods for decades, and making children go to school in another neighborhood where they may not feel safe, while depriving them of teacher mentors they have developed relationships with."

It's all happening on a day when Emanuel is on vacation. The Chicago Teachers Union, which opposes the cuts, made notice of this. In a statement the group said, "Today, a vacationing Mayor Rahm Emanuel is sending our school district into utter chaos. CPS lacks the capacity to close 50 schools. The CTU contends closing these schools are unnecessary, will not save the district or taxpayers a single dollar, and put students' safety and academics at risk."

School principals argued that there had been no method to the madness when it came to the closures.

Many schools will have to create space for incoming students and install air conditioning in several buildings. But the more critical issue, according to parents and teachers, is that the closures will have an adverse affect on poor and African-American communities.

Since 2001, about 100 schools have been closed in Chicago, the country's third largest school district. But it isn't alone in the school closure crisis.

Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington have closed hundreds of schools in recent years. Earlier this month, New York City slated 22 schools for closure. But last week, at a public education meeting, an attempt to stop the schools from closing failed when the Panel for Education Policy voted eight to three against the proposal.

It will take open revolt, non-violent or otherwise, to turn this train around.

Since many of these school closures have been in African-American communities, advocacy groups have complained. The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is investigating 33 complaints related to school closings in 29 districts across 22 states.

There could be some hope in the Chicago closures. Thursday's list isn't final until late May after a vote from the Chicago Board of Education. But parents, teachers and students will have to find the will to protest—and protest loudly.

"It will take open revolt, non-violent or otherwise, to turn this train around," Naison says. "And it will come. Probably when people least expect it. Those who defy the laws of history and morality usually get payback."

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