Finally, 17 years after Chicago Public Schools implemented the Renaissance 2010 “turnaround” strategy, a policy that continues to fuel today’s violence, the Chicago Board of Education voted unanimously last month to put an end to the plan. School board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, called the strategy “a relic of a previous era of school reform.”
The purpose of the policy was to establish an increased number of high-quality education options across Chicago by transforming several dysfunctional schools into smaller, more manageable schools.
However, a by-product of the policy was that it contributed to high dropout rates, especially among young, African American males who were at high risk for gangs and violence. They really suffered.
It’s a good thing that the Chicago Board of Education has ended this draconian policy, but they did it 17 years too late. Sure, the positive side is, “better late than never.” But, the years of potential life lost are forever gone. What little there is left to salvage may take another 20 years to recover.
The original policy called for the closing of 80 existing schools, some of which were then reopened as one of at least 100 newly created charter schools. These former neighborhood schools now required special admissions, including higher standardized test scores that many neighborhood students could not meet. The policy forced large numbers of area youth into high schools that were little more than dumping grounds for kids who could not qualify to go to schools close to their homes. The result was that youth had to travel outside of their “hoods,” crossing multiple gang turfs to get back and forth to unfamiliar schools where they often encountered pre-existing animosities.
I was a street-gang outreach worker in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood in the early 2000s when Renaissance 2010 started. The neighborhood in the part of Auburn-Gresham I worked in was called 8-Tray, a long-standing Black P. Stones set. One of the boys I remember most is Lil Man. I called him that because he was 13 going on 40. Lil Man was always polite to adults, and I never heard him utter a mean word to his peers. He stayed dressed fresh. Lil Man wore spotless white Ts with baggy jeans, topped off with a new Buck-Fifty hat always cocked heavy to the left. He left the store tag attached to the cap to let you know it was brand new. Also, of course, Lil Man religiously sported the latest Jordan gym shoes. Whenever he saw me coming, he would always stand up straight, in his man-stance, his cool pose.
He wasn’t a gang-banger in the sense that he ever sold drugs or was involved in gang beefs. He didn’t carry a gun as far as I could tell. But, he did consider himself to be a Black P. Stone gang member. However, it really didn’t matter because regardless of whether or not young men from his neighborhood claimed to be a Stone, other street kids called them Stones based on the fact that they lived in that neighborhood, period.
Lil Man was in the very first group of victims of Renaissance 2010.
His neighborhood school was Calumet High School. But, due to poor academic performance, the school was closed and then reopened as a new charter school called Calumet Perspectives High School of Technology.
Like hundreds of Black boys in his neighborhood, Lil Man couldn’t get into Calumet Perspectives High School of Technology. His test scores weren’t high enough. Therefore, he had to travel 4 miles west to Hirsch Metropolitan High School in the neighborhood of Greater Grand Crossing. To get to Hirsch, he took the 79th Street bus east through two major gang territories, Boys Town, a Gangster Disciples set, and Mount Vernon, a Black Disciples set. Both groups were rivals to his neighborhood gang, the Blackstone P. Stones. Hirsch sits in the heart of one of the most active Gangster Disciples sets in Chicago, known on the streets as Lon City. So, going to school every day was a journey through a war zone for Lil Man. From time to time, I would stop by his block to check on him. He didn’t talk much about how he was feeling, but he didn’t have to. I understood. I just tried to encourage him to hang in there. Despite the treacherous path he had to travel, he went to Hirsch, unlike many other boys from Auburn Gresham, who never reported to school on day one. However, his attendance quickly became sporadic, and within a few months, he stopped going altogether because it was too risky. He saw too many of his peers snatched off of the 79th Street bus and beaten to a pulp by the gangs whose territories he traveled through daily.
As the years moved on, periodically, I would ride through the neighborhood to check on the young guys I used to work with. When I ran into Lil Man, each time, he looked more and more worn-down. His clothes weren’t as fresh anymore. He lost his man-stance. It was hard for him to make eye contact with me. He was embarrassed by what he had become. He couldn’t find a job, of course, because he hadn’t even finished the 9th grade. He picked up a weed habit to cope with his depression and anxiety. He began to look hardened. He had a few run-ins with the law and ended up getting locked up in the County a couple of times. I went to see him once. When he got out, he had a different swagger. He no longer looked as tired. His exhaustion was replaced with anger. He had become someone else. He looked desperate.
I lost touch with Lil Man over the years, but recently I heard he got into an altercation with another young man in a dice game. Lil Man was shot and killed. Like so many others, his murder was labeled gang-related. And like many others, it wasn’t.
Lil Man’s story is similar to thousands of young, African American males in Chicago who have fallen victim to Renaissance 2010.
While the ending of Renaissance 2010 does nothing to reverse the carnage produced over the past 17 years, it does turn off the faucet that fuels the raging fire of todays’ violence. If CPS uses this opportunity wisely and redistributes new resources to neighborhood schools and their existing staff, we should see a gradual decline in violence in Chicago.
A reduction in violence is not something that will happen overnight, however. The hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown youths who were the victims of the Apartheid school system Renaissance 2010 created are still out there. They range in ages of 15 to 31, the population that has the highest rates of homicides. This group of youth has been so traumatized; it will take a Marshall Plan to help them recover.
Ending the Renaissance 2010 “turnaround” strategy is something to celebrate. It gives us a chance to reimagine neighborhood schools, which have always been the foundation of Chicago’s Black neighborhoods.