Make a couple of trades to move players. Consolidate practice sites. Invest in multi-million dollar promises.
Although these strategies may sound like something out of a Chicago sports team playbook, they are actually moves that Chicago Public Schools is proposing to make in two South Side neighborhoods.
In Englewood, CPS is planning to close three under-enrolled neighborhood high schools—Harper, TEAM Englewood, and Hope—and combine those schools’ students with Robeson High School’s population in a new $75 million building that will replace Robeson’s existing campus. In the South Loop, CPS plans to convert the National Teachers Academy from an elementary school to a high school, sending the Academy’s students to a new $55 million South Loop Elementary.
CEO Forrest Claypool and Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson have stated that both plans will give the communities a chance at a high-quality education in neighborhood, open-enrollment high schools. Presently, families in both neighborhoods often send their children to high schools elsewhere in the city. The new Englewood high school and the converted Teachers Academy are intended for student populations that exist only on paper.
But a situation like this, that involves massive reshuffling of students and tens of millions in construction spending, wouldn’t fly in Chicago’s suburbs or other larger districts in Illinois. That’s mainly because, in order for a new school to be built in those cases, residents would have to vote on the proposal. Take the suburb of Lockport, where I grew up. Around 2009, the southwest suburban high school swelled to more than 3,000 students crammed into a school that only had a capacity for 2,700. Despite having an actual need and an existing population for another school, Lockport residents year after year voted against a referendum to build a new school. Eventually, growth slowed and Lockport’s student population is no longer over capacity for the high school.
Whether Lockport needed an extra high school or not, a key decision-making element that’s being left out of the CPS process is the voice of the community. Parents in Englewood schools and parents with students at the Teachers Academy were not consulted on the proposals before they were announced. In an interview with WTTW, Academy local school council chair Elisabeth Greer said, “To not engage us in the conversations about our schools, to be talking about our school a few blocks away and what you want to do with our school and not mention it to us until we force you to say in a public arena…it’s just really gross misconduct and it feels like a real strong racial injustice.” In fact, it’s only because of parent and community outrage that the Teachers Academy was recently designated as a school to be phased out slowly, instead of completely closed in two years.
Race is also a critical factor. Nearly all of the students in Englewood’s high schools are African American, and 80% of the Teachers Academy student population is also African American and low-income. For the 700 students in the Academy, the change will mean moving from a successful school culture with wraparound services to South Loop Elementary, where the population will grow to around 1,800 students—huge numbers for any elementary school. In contrast, the high school in the former Teachers Academy will have only 1,000 seats.
The plans in both neighborhoods call into question the advocacy for equity that Claypool and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have been pushing for at the state level. Emanuel and Claypool have challenged state legislators, through a “20-for-20” campaign (advocating for Chicago, which has 20% of the state’s students, to receive 20% of state funding for education) and most recently through a failed civil rights court case that argued that Chicago students were getting a separate and unequal education because of racially-biased state funding practices. Yet, at the local level, school closings, student transfers, building conversions like those in Englewood and the South Loop mar the image of Emanuel and Claypool as crusaders for equity.
If school closures, transfers, conversions and spending tax dollars on multi-million dollar construction without a guaranteed population aren’t acceptable for students in wealthier zip codes, why have they become the norm in Chicago? How is it fair that predominantly African American students in Chicago are being shuffled around without their community being a part of the decision? Just four years after the massive school closings of 2013 and two years after supporters of Dyett High School went on a hunger strike to save their school, the district continues with moves that show them as out-of-touch with the students they serve, the communities they reside in, and the fiscal crisis that seems to be never-ending for the district, city, and state.
CPS students and teachers are not players on professional sports teams. They should not be traded and shuffled around while students in wealthier zip codes get a stable, sustainable education. If CPS wants to argue for equitable funding at the state level, then it also needs to provide all Chicago students and families with an equitable process and voice when it comes to significant changes to their education.