Irene Robinson has had experiences that will sound familiar to many African-Americans in Chicago. Five years ago, when the city shuttered an unprecedented 50 schools, many of Irene’s grandchildren lost their schools and had to transfer to new ones. The school across the street from her house, Overton Elementary, closed too. It hit Irene especially hard because it was the place her own kids had gone to school.

Then, rents went up in her neighborhood and Irene couldn’t afford to stay. So she moved to a more affordable apartment in a different neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. It pained her to leave Bronzeville, where her great-grandmother had settled during the Great Migration as millions of African-Americans left the South for greater opportunities. Irene has seen family members leave Chicago for the suburbs and Iowa in search of a better life, too.

But Irene isn’t taking all this change lying down. She’s decided to fight the city policies that she sees as disruptive to African-American children, families and their communities. So she started speaking up — and loudly.

The Chicago Reporter teamed up with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting to tell the story of how the mass school closures affected Irene and her family, and why she’s made it her life’s mission to prevent more shutdowns from happening. This story is the latest installment in the Reporter’s “Empty schools, empty promises” series.

Listen to the story:

Download the episode, “My Town, Chi-Town,” on iTunes

This story was reported by The Chicago Reporter’s Kalyn Belsha and produced by Bill Healy for Reveal.

Kalyn is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @kalynbelsha.

Bill Healy is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. He produces StoryCorps for WBEZ and teaches radio reporting at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter @chicagoan or check out his work at...

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1 Comment

  1. Of course people don’t like when a school or schools are closed in their area, but ignoring the massive population decrease, and overall trend of fewer school aged kids, is largely brushed aside in this story. There was a passing mention of 125K fewer African Americans in Chicago (most estimates are higher according to recent stories including those on WBEZ) and 90K fewer (90K!!) African American students in CPS. While it would be great if there were resources to keep extremely tiny schools open with great teacher/student ratios, the reality is Chicago has a huge budget challenge. This is all about the color green, not a vast conspiracy to undermine large parts of the west or south sides. Sadly, few (if any) public school districts keep empty schools open, including wealthy (and majority white) suburban districts.

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