On March 21, Chicago Public Schools announced the closure of sixty-one school buildings, more than ten percent of the city’s elementary and middle schools. CPS claims it faces a one billion dollar deficit next year, and since November has framed the crisis as one of underutilization. Although taxpayers pay to maintain facilities with a capacity for 511,000 students, the district claims, only 403,000 of those seats are filled. In response, CPS will close or restaff more than half as many schools as it has over the past decade. The decision comes after a five-month conversation with the communities it affects, communities that turned out in force to protest the closings. How that dialogue has unfolded over the past five months tells the story of a district’s efforts to enact highly unpopular school actions on a scale unseen in the city. It also represents a heightened, highly visible effort at engagement that has been unable to overcome a widespread conviction that closings will fail students.
Assuming the recommendations made by CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett are approved by the school board in May, CPS will close fifty-two elementary schools and one high school program—the upper grades at Mason Elementary—due to under-utilization. Crispus Attucks Elementary in Bronzeville is to be phased out over two years. Six additional schools will be turnaround schools, in which all administration and staff will be removed, and management turned over to the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership. Another eleven schools will become part of co-locations, in which two separate schools with independent administrations are housed in the same facility. Not every proposed action involves a building closure.
All told, a CPS spokesperson put the number of students affected—those who are projected to enroll in “welcoming schools” next fall—at 32,436, eight percent of the district’s current enrollment. Effects of the measure tilt heavily toward the South and West Sides, a distribution that fits into the broader trend of CPS closures. More than ninety percent of the district’s 104 closures and turnarounds (in which a school is completely restaffed) since 2001 have been in those sections of the city.
Throughout the process, the district has emphasized its efforts toward community engagement and transparency. While CPS is required by state law to publicize any school closings by December 1, last November Byrd-Bennet successfully pushed for a four-month extension on that deadline in order to solicit community feedback. In exchange, the CEO promised a five-year moratorium on closures, a move to stabilize a district shaken by controversial reform efforts and last September’s teachers strike. With that postponement came the initiation of what the district promoted as “a rigorous, transparent, and open dialogue,” which included the appointment of a nine-member Commission on School Utilization that would hold four data-gathering meetings and six community meetings, in addition to offering online avenues for community feedback. Along with the commission, CPS also organized a lineup of twenty-eight community meetings. Held across the city over the course of two months, the district estimates the meetings had a combined attendance of at least 20,000.
On February 19, community members from the district’s Burnham Park Network—an administrative region stretching from the Loop to 67th Street—convened at Saint Anselm Church in Washington Park for the network’s second and final meeting. The stakes were high: twenty-four Burnham Park schools remained candidates for closure, more than in any other network. Each school had five minutes to state its case to CPS officials on hand, supported by crowds of parents, teachers, students, and alumni.
At an earlier meeting in Saint Anselm, held two weeks prior, the large church had been full. This time, the church was overflowing; pews on the ground floor and balcony were packed, and dozens of people stood in side aisles and at the back of the chapel. Community meetings across the city saw similar turnout. A few weeks earlier, a crowd of more than a thousand led to a police barricade at a meeting in Little Village; at Saint Anselm patrol cars lingered outside.
Speaking on behalf of Dumas Technology Academy in Woodlawn, mentor and school advocate De’Andre Short offered one variation on an argument given by many of the schools that followed him: in closing Dumas, he told the board, “you will be dividing a family.” Others challenged the district’s utilization formula, the basis for its lists of 330 and later 129 candidates for closure. They cited uses for rooms that ranged from after-school programming to special education classes and GED programs for parents. Regardless of the nature of the argument, the facts were often laced with a fundamental distrust of a school system that speakers felt had historically manipulated and underserved their community. Nona Burney, head of the Bronzeville Community Action Council, places the current consolidations in a context of school actions taken by the district in Bronzeville, referencing the tumultuous pasts of schools on the closure list. Crispus Attucks, which was represented at the Burnham Park meetings, is one of those schools. Attucks received the students displaced by the 2004 closure of nearby Raymond, and was relocated four years later to a building that had housed John Farren Elementary until it too was shuttered in 2006. “Before the community action council existed, schools in Bronzeville had already been dismantled, destabilized by closings…There’s a whole history,” said Burney.
That history prompts the question of whether or not the newest CPS efforts have represented a move toward genuine engagement. CPS has been keen to distance its efforts in the most recent closure cycle from those in past years; for the first time, a CPS spokesperson said, community feedback had been solicited prior to recommendations being made to the board. District officials visited every school proposed for consolidation, and the independent Commission on School Utilization supplemented initial meetings over the course of December with additional conversations with Community Action Councils and Local School Councils. Byrd-Bennett was not present at all of the meetings, but received a record of all feedback.
Burney, at least, is pleased with the district’s engagement efforts. As she says, “We were able to be closer to the pre-decision process of saying, ‘Here’s what we have in our community, here’s what we want in our community, and we believe that all of our buildings need to be left alone so that we can do the work that we had originally outlined to do.’”
Eleven Burnham Park schools are closing or being turned around, among them Dumas and nine schools within the Bronzeville CAC. Despite outcries, some closures were not at odds with community input. Burney cited the consolidation of Williams Elementary and Williams Middle, which typically serve the same student population as a closure backed by the community.
But that feeling of inclusion didn’t translate to the community meetings, CPS’s broadest effort at engagement. De’Andre Short, speaking before the final closure list was announced, said of his turn at the mic, “It leaves you kind of defenseless. You don’t want to not do it because you got to take any chance you can get, but at the same time you walk away not knowing how effective you actually were. Am I actually being heard? Is this just a facade to say that we did hear you, or is this something that you’re actually considering?”
Wendy Katten, director of parent group Raise Your Hand, was also critical of the meetings as an engagement model. “Having a one-sided, non-interactive conversation and then telling parents that the district leader will listen to the feedback on an audio-tape,” she said, “does not really provide confidence that any kind of information is really getting to the right people.”
The case of Brentano, a Logan Square school that serves students from Pre-K through eighth grade, offers a view of the organizing manpower necessary to keep a school from closure. “We approached it like a campaign,” said Will Guzzardi, a community organizer in the neighborhood. “We had some strategy sessions early on where we hammered out our messaging, how we were going to talk about this to people in the community and elected officials and to the CPS administration, and all the different players.” Though Guzzardi said the community meetings had offered a valuable chance to display broad support for the school, it was only one element of a larger strategy that included a public presentation of a community petition, securing vocal support from elected officials, and eventually meeting with someone from CPS. “We had a meeting with a CPS administrator with our school and the two other elementary schools in Logan Square, where he was asking what the Logan Square elementary school scene looked like and why Brentano was an important piece of that,” remembers Guzzardi. Brentano was spared closure in the final list. “It’s hard to say which of those aspects was the deciding one,” says Guzzardi, “but I think all together they really created a powerful message about the school.”
Many of the recurring concerns community members held up in the meetings—fears about the transfer of special education students and homeless students, as well as student populations that would be crossing gang lines—were given detailed treatment in the recommendations that the Commission on School Utilization published in its final report. CPS has reflected many of the same themes in the transition plans they have published for each school. Community input on how schools will be closed, then, has had a definite effect. But the larger complaint may be one that, from a CPS perspective, was never up for debate.
At a rally in Daley Plaza on March 27, as speakers and protesters echoed concerns that had been raised throughout the engagement process, they held aloft a banner reading, “Don’t close our schools.” One hundred and twenty-seven protesters were removed and ticketed after blocking LaSalle Street, but overall protest turnout became one more number to haggle over. (On the day of the rally the Chicago Teachers Union estimated the crowd was somewhere between 5,000 and 6,500, the police estimated it was a mere 700–900, and the next day’s Sun-Times analyzed a photograph to peg it at a minimum of 2,750.)
While a polarized vision of Us vs. Them had been a common thread throughout community organizing efforts and testimonies given at local meetings, by the start of the Daley Plaza protest that vision became explicitly Us vs. Him. A sign with a caricature of Rahm Emanuel screamed, “Your ego needs right-sizing.” Protesters chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Rahm Emanuel’s got to go!” And CTU President Karen Lewis said to the assembled crowd, “To close schools down when people say they want their schools is unjust. And when you have an unjust leader, you must rise up.”
The protest comes a week before CPS will initiate another wave of engagement. Between April 6 and May 2, the district will hold two community meetings and a public hearing for each consolidation or co-location. Each of the six turnaround schools will also have a public hearing, for a total of more than 180 meetings in a little more than a month. The Board of Education is expected to cast a final vote on the closures on May 22.
Despite the meetings, recent comments by Byrd-Bennett, who has committed to staying the course on closures, and Mayor Emanuel, who has said that the time for negotiations is over, indicate that there is little chance officials will alter any proposed school actions. At the time of Emanuel’s comments, CTU spokesperson Stephanie Gadlin had already publicly called the May 22 board meeting a “rubber stamp.” Lewis has issued repeated cries to for opposition to school closures through civil disobedience, including encouraging students to show up at their current schools next fall, regardless of closures. Others are less quick to dismiss the opportunity. In a brief phone interview, 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell called the meetings “a chance for communities and elected officials to continue to press their case with CPS.” Asked about her own role, she said only, “I will continue to fight for my schools.” Bronzeville’s Burney was hopeful for the meetings: “I’m going to act as if this is different and encourage schools to make their cases for either remaining open, if that’s what they want, or making sure they are clear about what they need for the transitions to occur…I want to believe that this is not the rubber stamp that I felt [it was] last year.”
Asked about the meetings’ possible effect on the proposed closures, a CPS spokesperson said that the feedback would continue to inform Byrd-Bennett, CPS, and the Board. As a testament to the value that the CEO places on engagement, a spokesperson said Byrd-Bennett would receive the recorded comments from the meetings. If the promised three meetings per fifty-four schools run as scheduled, for two hours each, that will be 324 hours of feedback.
Additional reporting by Katherine Jinyi Li.