Not surprisingly, the latest school closing proposals have generated lots of controversy, with a “rowdy screaming match” last week at the first community hearing on the proposed closing of four Englewood high schools. The schools are slated to be replaced with a new building on the site of Robeson High School.
Hearings – and protests – continued this week.
One highlight of last week’s meeting was the resignation of Keith Harris from the steering committee established by Chicago Public Schools last year for the proposed new high school.
“I could no longer be involved in a process where our voices aren’t being heard and the only role we have is to give cover to the decisions made by CPS,” Harris told me a few days later.
“We’re only there to give credibility to their proposal so they can say ‘This is what the community wants,’ when in fact, it isn’t,” he said.
He said his decision to resign was “impromptu,” though he’d already been discussing his issues with the process with other steering committee members.
He’s part of the Englewood Political Task Force, which has been organizing for community empowerment for 15 years, and has roots in organizing projects going back to the 1980s. For him, the high school closings are part of a longstanding pattern. “Englewood has a long history of the city shoving things down our throat and saying you just have to take it,” he said.
The district’s current school action guidelines, published in November 2017, say school closings and other actions will only be proposed if school principals, parents, or community members request them. But that’s not how it happened in Englewood. CPS has been planning a new high school there for well over a year; the new school and associated closures were announced in June 2017. The Englewood Community Action Council, which is appointed and directed by CPS, was brought on board only after the announcement.
Harris said some of the “more influential” members of the action council were not residents of Englewood. He believes they were brought in “for the special purpose of pushing this proposal through.” Some of them are also involved in organizing counter-protesters who backed the school closings at the first hearing, he said.
The steering committee for the new high school was set up in September. “There was never any input,” said Harris. “No recommendations or advice that we [gave] has been heard. It was, ‘This is what we’re going to do and we need you to go along with it.’ ”
Committee members had trouble getting questions answered by the district. “They’d always say, ‘We’ll get back to you,’ ” he said. “How do you expect us to say yes to something when we don’t know what we’re saying yes to?”
When he asked CPS officials if they would “entertain alternatives to just closing the schools and opening a new school,” he was told nothing had been decided. The Englewood Political Task Force worked with educators in the high schools and submitted a counterproposal to CPS and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office, arguing that enrollment in the existing high schools could be bolstered if programs were added.
“If you invest $5 million to $7 million in each school, you could get enrollment up. That’s under $30 million,” he pointed out. “Add $10 million or $15 million for improvements and repairs and you’re still way under the $75 million they say the new school will cost.” Three of the four high schools proposed for closure are “not really old,” having been built in the late 1970s.
“Financially it makes sense to invest in the existing schools instead of building a new building,” Harris said.
Safety is an important consideration, he noted. “The dynamic of bringing children from all over Englewood together in one place is like lighting a powder keg,” Harris said. Kids who have no gang affiliations are “automatically associated with them” based on where they live. “If I live on Carpenter and I’m going to 55th and Normal, I’m going to have problems coming, going, inside school and outside school,” he said.
Students now in Englewood high schools won’t ever be enrolled in the new school, which will start with a freshman class and add a grade each year as students move up. Their education will be disrupted as they are shuttled to the far reaches of the South Side.
CPS officials have said the neighborhood needs a new, state-of-the-art facility to attract and keep students. More Englewood teens attend high school elsewhere than in any other community in Chicago, according to the district.
Harris said the community hearing made clear that “the majority of people here are not necessarily against building a new school but they say don’t close the existing schools.”
He adds: “They’re not listening to us.”
It’s almost four years since Rahm Emanuel put on a sweater and shot a TV commercial admitting he hadn’t always listened very well and promising to do better. With his reelection little more than a year away, with politicians lining up to blast him for having a “strategic gentrification plan,” it’s an odd time to reignite the bad feelings created during his last round of school closings.
Maybe he should actually try listening.