129 schools on the block. Progress?

I started school in September of 1990, at Jane A. Neil Elementary. On 85th and Michigan on the south side of Chicago, it was a very small school with a population of no more than about 300 students. Neil was very unique in the way it was set up, which was to cater mostly to mentally and physically disabled students. I enjoyed my time there; it actually gave me a greater ability to not take the little things for granted like walking, running, laughing and even something as simple as communicating using language. I was a member of the school’s “general education” student base, and Neil did not have 7th and 8th grade for us.

I transferred to Morgan Park High School, in the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago and on 111th and South Vincennes. After scoring well on a placement exam, I was a member of the school’s Academic Center, a program for “bright” junior high students. We learned at an accelerated pace and had the opportunity to take high school classes despite being in the 7th and 8th grade. While I benefitted in some ways from this experience, it did sort of stunt my social growth. Despite that, I had every plan to stay throughout high school. My mother didn’t.

My mother thought Morgan Park was too far away from our Chatham home, so without my knowledge, she transferred me to Kenwood Academy for high school. Kenwood is located in the Hyde Park area, also on the south side like Neil and Morgan Park, and can be found on 51st and Blackstone. A high school that proclaimed itself to be a “college preparatory academy,” I enjoyed the overall vibe of the school, but not necessarily the students. If you haven’t visited the Hyde Park neighborhood, you should make the move as soon as possible because besides the racial diversity, it is a very welcoming and open-minded community. I graduated from Kenwood Academy in June, 2003, and my career as a CPS student was officially over.

On February 13, CPS released a list of 129 schools that are being considered for closings. 129 may seem like an awful lot until I remind you that in early December of 2012, 330 schools were on the potential chopping block, including Jane A. Neil, which left me incredibly disheartened. New CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett listed reasons for the potential closings, chief among them underutilization and low test scores. Underutilization can be attributed to a number of reasons, and you’d better believe that gentrification is one of them. As far as low test scores, I have never been a fan of using standardized test scores to gauge how well a school or student has performed, especially when that school and student is in an impoverished area. It doesn’t make sense to keep a school open if it isn’t half-filled, but it would also be nice to know whether there has been an effort to “save” the school. Not every parent can easily enroll their child in a different school, which is something CPS must be aware of.

If you look at the socioeconomic makeup of CPS, you will find that over 85% of students live in low income families. Roughly 44% of students are Hispanic, 43% are Black, 9% are White and 3% are Asian. Additionally, there are 617 schools in the district, a little over $10.5K is spent per pupil and only 66% of all subjects are met and exceeded in the schools. The number of low income and Black and Hispanic students in the system have led more than a few parents to suggest that the closings are primarily based on those two factors.

Byrd-Bennett hasn’t said much of late, and probably for good reason. After all, she’s the same person who wrote in a letter to CPS schools that she would consider cutting athletics altogether if there was ever a repeat of the incidents that occurred after a boy’s basketball game at Chicago State University featuring Morgan Park HS and Simeon Academy. 17 year-old Morgan Park student Tyrone Lawson was shot and killed after a game that ended with a fight between the two teams during the handshake line. Both head coaches were suspended for four games for their actions.

A threat of 129 Chicago public schools being closed is enough to deal with, especially for a school system that isn’t even six months removed from a nasty teachers strike which saw the teachers eventually prevail and former CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard essentially quit. The school system is over a total of $6 billion in debt and the teachers will be paid an additional $290 million over the next four years. Chicago’s direct debt rose by nearly 100% from 2000-10 and the problem hasn’t been rectified yet. Illinois has the one of the highest amounts of debt in the nation, topped by only three states. How will the teachers be paid? It is possible that CPS could sell some of its extra properties to help pay them. Cutting spending would hurt an already ailing system and raising property taxes would definitely create a political uproar on both sides and middle.

Simply selling unused buildings would net very little gain and hiking property taxes would bring hell to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s doorstep. So, it’s easiest to kill two birds with one stone and close schools that don’t quite meet certain minimum standards. You can relocate students and some teachers and then also ditch the surplus for money. Those teachers fired will virtually be paying remaining teachers. Kids will be packed into schools, some out of district, which is not uncommon with CPS. There will no longer be a need to support schools that aren’t highly productive. Because of this, the debt may be more manageable, making it more attractive.

There will be collateral damage, and that will be the parents, teachers and students of schools that are closed. Whether or not any closings are necessary doesn’t matter. There will be a huge change to potentially 129 neighborhoods in Chicago, mostly on the south and west side. These areas are home to many of the city’s poor and disadvantaged. I lived in a good neighborhood as a kid and went to good schools in the CPS system. I’m sure there was inner turmoil, but never anything quite like this. Students and teachers whose careers will be altered because of this have my sympathy. Politics have once again merged with education, and jobs, learning environments and a sense of security will inevitably be the casualty.

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