On a Monday evening in September, the normally desolate stretch of 75th Street near Yates Avenue in South Shore was lined with cars. Inside a banquet hall, Charles Kyle sat on a small stage with Karen Lewis and asked her questions about crime, economic development and, most of all, education.
“Renaissance 2010 was a real-estate plan,” Lewis told the crowd in her matter-of-fact style. Lewis was referring to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s controversial plan, aggressively continued by his successor Rahm Emanuel, to open new schools while closing failing ones in an effort to keep middle-class families in the city. “I don’t think many people understand that.”
Though the mayoral election was months away, Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, was gearing up to mount a dramatic challenge to Emanuel in his bid for a second term. As is well-known by now, serious health issues forced Lewis to bow out of the race before she officially entered it.
Yet Kyle, the moderator for the Exchange Ideas community forum, which sponsors events aimed at improving South Shore, says the concerns that drew so many residents out to hear Lewis and cling to her words still weigh heavily on the neighborhood.
Black communities, more so than any other neighborhoods in Chicago, have been dramatically affected by the education reform policies championed by Emanuel. The neighborhoods are simultaneously struggling with crime, high unemployment, loss of wealth as a result of the housing crisis and a dire need for economic investment.
A case in point: Last year, South Shore became a food desert when the Dominick’s grocery store on 71st Street closed, leaving residents with one neighborhood choice: a weekend farmers market. The neighborhood’s dilemma reflects the economic development problems faced by other black communities in the city that want to lure new businesses and jobs. For example, tax increment finance districts, created to spark economic development, have not generated the same level of revenue on the South Side as elsewhere. Among the city’s active TIFs, not a single district on the South Side is ranked in the top 20 for property tax revenue.
Meanwhile, the anger about schools came to a head with last year’s closings of 50 schools, virtually all in black neighborhoods. And it is squarely at Emanuel’s doorstep, a potential threat to his re-election hopes: A shocking 77 percent of black voters disapprove of Emanuel’s handling of schools and only 10 percent agree with the policy of increasing funding for charter schools while cutting budgets for neighborhood schools, according to an August 2014 Chicago Tribune poll.
Education also promises to figure prominently in aldermanic races, where both the teachers union and the group Democrats for Education Reform, which supports Emanuel’s policies, are seeking to field and support candidates who will back their agendas.
Mayoral challenger Bob Fioretti calls Emanuel the most divisive education politician since Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chief who made national headlines for shaking up the district but became mired in allegations of test-score cheating on her watch.
“For the sake of politics, he gave children the shaft,” Fioretti says.
Another challenger, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, spoke to an audience of teachers union members at a recent dinner and told them that a belief in the importance of neighborhood schools is what sets him apart from Emanuel. Garcia recounted his involvement in a hunger strike that led to the creation of Little Village High School.
“We stood up for our children and protected them,” Garcia told the audience, after receiving Lewis’ crucial endorsement. “Instead of closing our schools, I believe in successful community schools.”
Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says she has not seen the polls that show dissatisfaction with the mayor’s policies. And she strongly disagrees with the notion that neighborhood schools have suffered from disinvestment under Emanuel. The district has spent “tens of millions of dollars” putting new STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curricula and International Baccalaureate programs into some neighborhood schools, while providing extra help to failing schools, Byrd-Bennett points out. “These things have made a tremendous difference,” she says.
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The dissatisfaction with Emanuel’s education agenda is local evidence of a rising tide against the current version of “school reform.” In New York City, for example, Mayor Bill de Blasio rode to victory on campaign promises that he would curb charter expansion and standardized tests, and forge better relationships with teachers and parents.
Chicago’s mass school closings became symbolic across the country of the disinvestment in neighborhood schools that has come as a result of the privatization movement, says author and education historian Diane Ravitch.
“No one had ever done that in one day in America,” she says of the 50 closings. Ravitch, who is also on the education faculty at New York University, is perhaps the most outspoken and well-known critic of the reform movement that she once strongly supported.
The public is also increasingly resistant to the use of standardized tests, another hallmark of reform. More and more, people have begun to realize that standardized tests are used to justify the closing of neighborhood schools and privatization of school systems, Ravitch says.
A recent report by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, examined the anti-testing movement. According to the report, in New York City, 60,000 children and their parents refused to take federally mandated state tests in grades three through eight in 2014, up from a few thousand in 2013. More than 1,000 children and families opted out in both Chicago and Colorado, FairTest found, and smaller numbers of families did so in other regions.
Meanwhile, the charter movement is now more than a decade old and the public is starting to ask hard questions about it, notes Peter Cunningham, who was press secretary for Arne Duncan when Duncan ran Chicago schools and followed him to the U.S. Department of Education.
“We are further down the path,” says Cunningham, who now runs an organization called Education Post. “Is it enough to say that 29 percent of charter schools out-perform traditional schools? Maybe it should be 40 percent or 50 percent. It is not acceptable for charter schools to be worse.”
CEO Byrd-Bennett says she is “absolutely agnostic [about] the type of school” and wants to talk instead about high-quality schools.
She also points out that her administration has held charter schools accountable by creating a warning list for those not performing well, and closing two charters during her tenure. But the mayor and Byrd-Bennett will not commit to curtailing charter expansion altogether.
These days, Emanuel talks little about charter schools, perhaps recognizing that they are not politically popular. No new ones will be approved for next school year, putting the timetable for the approval process outside the timeframe for the run-up to the mayoral election.
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Providing a good education for his son has always been a priority for Charles Kyle and his son’s mother, Kyle says. But the issue really hit home when he began to look at schools as his son was nearing kindergarten age. He went to visit Madison Elementary School, which he had attended until sixth grade. Along with familiarity, proximity was a factor: Madison is located less than a block from where he lives.
Kyle says he would have liked to show his commitment to the neighborhood by sending his son to the local school. But he just wasn’t impressed. “The kindergarten classroom didn’t have sight words on the wall,” he says. The school’s test scores are average to below-average.
Fewer than half of the children who live in the attendance area go to Madison, which has space for up to 750 students, but enrolled only 233 students at the time Kyle visited.
So when Kyle’s son was offered a seat at Murray Language Academy, a magnet school two neighborhoods away in Hyde Park, he reluctantly accepted it. Murray has high test scores and also offers foreign language classes—French, Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese—every day.
Kyle’s experience is replicated in families throughout South Shore: About 8,000 school-aged children live in the community, but instead of attending the neighborhood schools, they are spread out among 364 schools across the city. That means more than half of the city’s public schools have at least one student from South Shore, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis.
Yet the exodus hasn’t resulted in children traveling to substantially better schools. Among those children who leave the neighborhood to attend school, only 21 percent are enrolled in top schools. A larger number, 25 percent, are enrolled in schools with test scores that are among the worst in the city. African-American students are more likely to travel to mediocre or poor-performing schools than any other group of children.
The phenomenon is not new. For years, the number of students traveling outside their neighborhood to school has been on the rise. And one point in Emanuel’s favor is that a smaller percentage of students are now making the trip to low-achieving schools than under Daley, according to a Catalyst analysis.
Still, Byrd-Bennett says she is “very worried” about the numbers and says the district needs to do a better job of sharing information with parents. “Sometimes schools appeal to parents because they are quiet or calm, but they are not high-quality [educationally],” she says.
Last year’s school closings may have aggravated the trend: Two-thirds of the schools designated to take in displaced children experienced a significant drop in state test scores—an indicator that children from closed schools perhaps fared no better academically in their new ones.
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Another bone of contention in black communities is the diminishing public input and control of decisions about schools in African-American neighborhoods.
When Emanuel walked into office, only three of the schools in South Shore and South Chicago, the community next door, were run by private entities. Now, eight of 21 schools, or about 38 percent, are either charter schools, contract schools or turnaround schools, which are managed by the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership.
A telling example is evident in South Shore. Val Free, execcutive director of the South Shore Planning Coalition, recalls the opening of Great Lakes Academy, a charter school that is technically in South Chicago but draws South Shore students.
Free feels that Great Lakes was forced upon the community unnecessarily. Virtually all the neighborhood elementary schools in the surrounding area are underutilized. While many are low-performing schools, one of them, Powell Elementary, earned the highest academic rating last year.
“Why would you try to dilute Powell by adding a charter?” Free says. “It seems like sabotage.”
Neither the planning coalition nor the South Shore Community Action Council—one of several such entities created by CPS to weigh in on school decisions—supported the Great Lakes plan. Yet school board members approved it and the charter opened its doors last school year.
Free says her group asked the charter operator to sign a community benefits agreement that would stipulate having a certain number of people from the neighborhood on the school’s board, in the classroom and in other jobs, such as janitorial.
Great Lakes Charter operator Katherine Myers was resistant, Free says. At one point, the charter did offer spots on the board to community members. Yet when Free was nominated to serve, Myers refused because Free had opposed the opening of the school.
Despite how she felt about the school, Free says she would have been fair on the board out of a desire to have the students get a good education. (Myers did not return numerous calls from Catalyst.)
Henry English, the head of the Black United Fund, which supports local non-profits and is active in the community, says he is disappointed when he sees the teachers walking through the doors of Great Lakes.
“They seem short on experience,” he says. “Great Lakes did not hire any teachers from the community… that is for sure.”
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Citywide, 1,134 black educators—teachers, social workers and school counselors—are gone from the CPS payroll in recent years, according to CTU data. (The numbers include retirees.) In South Shore, the number is 91. These job figures help fuel antagonism toward charters and turnaround schools.
What typically has happened to schools in South Shore and other black communities is the exact opposite of what has taken place in white and Latino communities.
Take Lakeview, a mostly white North Side community that, like South Shore, sits on the lakefront. Here, 70 percent of children attend their neighborhood school. Of those students who travel outside the community, nearly 90 percent land at a high-achieving school. No charters or contract schools operate in Lakeview. No schools have closed or undergone a turnaround. And since 2011, 140 additional teachers are working in schools in the neighborhood.
The contrast in what has happened in different communities has been by design. Andrea Zopp, a school board member and head of the Chicago Urban League, told a City Club audience recently that charters and other privately run schools were opened in neighborhoods that needed “quality options.”
District officials have also maintained that school closings were intended to make the school system more efficient by shuttering buildings with too few children, and that the closings were done at one time to minimize disruption over multiple years.
But the closings were still a bitter pill for many to swallow. And as for choice, education organizer Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization argues that what people want is good neighborhood schools, not a million options to sift through. Brown is also national coordinator for Journey for Justice, an alliance of activists who have fought against school closings, turnarounds and charter expansion in communities of color.
“It has ripped black communities apart, and people are becoming more sophisticated and angry,” Brown says.
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Last year, Kyle worked in an afterschool program at Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn, a school designated to take in displaced students from Sexton. Kyle says that the students in his program felt as if they were being moved around like pawns on a chess board.
“No one asked them what they felt about the merger,” Kyle says. “They didn’t have a choice at all, and they felt abandoned by the staff at their old school.”
The first few months at Fiske were rough, Kyle recalls. Students fought and the staff struggled to maintain discipline. Eventually, the environment calmed down. But Kyle worries that the disappointment the students had in the education system will linger.
Like others, Free has mixed feelings about the closings. The schools were failing and “not producing global citizens,” she says. Free, like so many parents, decided not to send her son to a neighborhood high school; instead, she enrolled him at the Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville, a good 6 miles from South Shore.
Yet what didn’t make sense to her, and still does not, is that immediately after closing schools, neighborhoods with a lot of half-empty buildings got new schools thrust on them.
Byrd-Bennett acknowledges that some community groups are still unhappy about the closings, but adds that parents of displaced students have told her they are pleased with the education their children are getting.
According to CPS statistics, 74 percent of welcoming schools saw their enrollment fall by more than 10 students. Byrd-Bennett said she is not familiar with those figures.
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When Emanuel talks about schools now, he emphasizes new programs and statistics that have improved, like graduation rates. The five-year graduation rate this year was 69 percent, up from 58 percent when he came into office.
Kyle says the statistic does not resonate for him or people in his community. Despite areas of South Shore that are wealthier, the community still has blocks crowded with abandoned apartment buildings, boarded-up businesses, high unemployment and too many young guys hanging out with nothing to do all day.
The graduation rate for black males in Chicago still hovers at about 50 percent and is still the lowest compared with other racial groups. A shocking 92 percent of black male teens in Chicago are unemployed, according to a January 2014 Chicago Urban League report.
Sitting at a coffee shop one day, Kyle looks out the window and points to a young man whose shoulders are slouched as he peers down the block. Kyle says the boy’s name is Donte and he worked with him at Fiske. “I told him to go home, but look, he is back out there,” he says.
The combination of dropouts and high unemployment means that illegal activity is commonplace. This reality intertwines with other concerns, including education and the ability to attract businesses to the neighborhood.
It becomes a cycle that is hard for a community to break. “I never saw a good school surrounded by a depressed community,” says Kyle.