Op-Ed: Watching Our Chicago Schools Close Is ‘Like Being Stuck in a Bad Dream’

Associate professor Isabel Nuñez argues that the closure of over 50 elementary schools in Chicago will have a detrimental effect.

In Chicago, students march through the Loop protesting the city's plan to close more than 50 elementary schools on March 25, 2013. (Photo: Getty Images)

Watching the Chicago Public Schools play fast and loose with children’s safety and learning, as well as with the supposed reasons for all of this, has been like being stuck in a bad dream where students, teachers, schools, and communities are the peas in an endless series of shell games. 

You know that con, where a small ball (the pea) is placed beneath one of three covers (the shells) and the operator moves the shells around, betting that the player won’t be able to tell where the one with the pea ends up. But the whole thing is a swindle; the player can never win.

Thank goodness people are getting wise to the game. Chicago has never been a city of easy marks, and some Chicagoans are working to make sure everyone sees through the trick. Among these are the members of CReATE, or Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education, who just released a research brief on school closures

The brief summarizes prior studies and analyzes new data, concluding that the closures will devastate already struggling communities without serving the purposes that supposedly make them necessary. CReATE’s lead researcher in this effort is a sociologist of education at Roosevelt University, Stephanie Farmer. Farmer and her team laid out exactly what’s at stake and how the odds are stacked. 

Sadly, school closures have not been confined to Chicago. The silver lining here, though, is that there is substantial research on the impact of school closings on students in cities all over the country—that is, if we are willing to learn from it. 

When students’ schools are closed, the social/emotional effects are overwhelmingly detrimental, including weaker connections with adults in school, and the need to fit into an entirely new terrain of peer relationships. 

Most frighteningly, studies of prior school closures in Chicago have found increased levels of violence in the neighborhoods surrounding receiving schools. These research findings would not come as a surprise to the students at the schools slated for closure. Dozens of their older brothers and sisters spent the first day of their spring break protesting, hand-delivering a letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office that warned of the dangers their siblings will soon be facing.

This round of closures was advertised as being all about ‘right-sizing,’ or ensuring ‘optimal utilization’ of classroom space. Unfortunately, the CPS-stated ideal size of 30 students per classroom is directly contraindicated by the best research on the subject, which shows that students among 15 classmates do substantially better than those in classes of 22, and that poor, urban, and African-American students benefit from small class sizes even more. Not to mention that many of the schools set to be closed have significant populations of students with special needs, who are legally entitled to smaller class sizes.

Ninety-four percent of students from closed schools did not move to schools that were academically strong.

When faced with these arguments, Mayor Emanuel has backtracked to the justifications for prior school closures: that the purpose is to get students into better schools.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case here in Chicago, where the Consortium on Chicago School Research found in 2012 that 94 percent of students from closed schools did not move to schools that were academically strong.

National studies have found that the achievement levels of displaced students, as well as the students in receiving schools, suffer when schools are closed. In addition to test-score drops, research has found that students whose schools closed were less likely to graduate and were at higher risk of dropping out.    

The argument that this is about improving academic performance falls apart when examined closely, and the utilization argument is based on flawed math in the first place. Not that either of these would be an acceptable reason to put young children in danger of physical violence, but it does make you wonder what the real purpose behind the closures is. Here is where maps come in handy. 

Ninety percent of schools serve predominantly African-American student populations in communities already suffering from massive disinvestment. The geographic data also show that new charter schools are opening where neighborhood schools are closing—in the very same buildings 40 percent of the time. However, these schools can be much choosier about their student populations, and do not admit as many language learners, students with special needs, or neighborhood children. 

This could be about emptying communities in preparation for gentrification. It could be about privatizing public education. It is very likely a combination of both. The important thing is that we keep turning over the shells of false justification, and keep in mind the human peas being shifted around in this game. Don’t let the reality of school closures for the children of Chicago be hidden in plain sight. 

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