I imagine there are several reasons people did not vote for Rahm Emanuel in the February Mayoral election but the one that gets repeated and discussed most often by Black people is closing 51 Chicago Public schools, most of which were in the black community. Most of the people I talked with about the upcoming election and the kind of Mayor I think Chicago needs at this juncture are still angry enough about the school closings to vote for a candidate they acknowledge when pushed, is unquestionably less qualified. The prevailing message: That will fix Rahm! The problem is, it will in my opinion, fix the rest of us too.
In an effort to broaden people’s thinking or at the very least make myself feel better, I asked what I believed to be the next logical question, “Why do you think he closed the schools?” The answers mentioned most often: “He is looking out for his business cronies.” He is going to replace public schools with charter schools” (which by the way are public schools.) He doesn’t care about the black community.” “They’re South side children. He gives less than a damn about them. All he cares about is the north side. He takes from us to give to them.” “He doesn’t care if black children get killed.” So I, motivated by my belief in the power of fairness, said, “But none of the children who went to receiving schools have been shot or murdered. Is he still the “Murder Mayor?” The silence that followed was deafening. Most telling is not one of them (at least 20) mentioned academic performance as a reason for closing the school. This prompted me to start the remainder of my conversations with “The 51 schools the Mayor closed are known as “Underperforming” or “Failing” schools. Should they have been closed? Eleven of twelve people said, “No” because they are neighborhood schools, the majority is in the black community and children have to cross gang territories to get to the new schools. My next question, “Would you want your child, grandchild, niece, nephew, etc. to go to those schools?” The answers: Twelve resounding “No’s.”
People are angry because the schools are closed. They believe a racist has once again robbed the black community; taken something of value from black children and yet none of the “I-am-not-voting-for-Rahm-because-he-closed-those-schools” people want their children to go to the schools they are mad at him for closing. I dropped, maybe on purpose, the interviewer’s ball so to speak and did not ask, “Why?” But one person, young with preschool children and a budding career said, “Education is too important,” which I suspect, reflects the thoughts and feelings of the others.
In less than three weeks, Chicago’s next Mayor will be seated but the dust that has been stirred around how we think about quality education for black children will not settle as easily, I hope. The very fact that all of the people with whom I spoke would not send their kids to a failing school but are stringently angry about the school closings ought to raise some troubling questions for all of us. We ought to be asking, “Whose kids do we want to go to those school? Does this mean we believe there are black children for whom the education offered at these underperforming schools is good enough? Beyond race, who are these children? What characteristics make them “eligible” for such schools?
There are a multitude of things to consider when we think about how this cluster of schools in the black community got in the shape they were in. I venture to say there are a variety of reasons and more than enough blame to loop around a few times. One thing for sure, if we are in the mood for truth telling, is the children who attended these schools have been the political football CPS, CTU and other political and community leaders including parents with white hands and black hands and brown hands have passed, ran and carried to their goal lines.
Talks of closing some of these same schools when Richard M. Daley was Mayor met with the threat of not being re-elected. Turnaround efforts at some of these schools were met with resistance in the form of rhetoric comparable to what has been said about closing schools during the recent protest. And, where turnaround was implemented, the schools ‘ status did not change substantially. But, some people believe, as was said by a demonstrator, “He’s making a big mistake.” Bigger I suppose than black children continuing to be educated in schools in need of cost prohibitive repairs; schools that are under resourced; schools with enrollment that is far below capacity; schools where the academic performance of too many children for too many years has been below anything that ought to be acceptable to any black student or black parent, and any principle or teacher in any neighborhood school? So, to hear a black person say, “Those schools were not that bad,” ought make us ask out loud, “Compared to what?” And, “How bad does a school have to be to not be good enough for black children?”
Some people said if closing is the only option, it does not need to be done right now. When, I wonder, will it be ok to do it? Four years from now? No, that will be too soon because the fifth floor will be up for grabs again. Candidates will be scared of not getting elected and they, along with their constituencies will be passing and running with that football. And the children. Well, they can wait until…
Some people think the Mayor would have shown higher regard for the black community if all of the schools had not been closed at the same time. The Mayor could have, some said, closed the schools over, let us say, a three-year period. Had this option been acceptable to CPS, some people might have felt victorious because they “showed” the Mayor. The problem is the number of black children who would then be waiting to be rescued from underperforming schools will not directly affect the education of any of the children in the next Mayor’s family. And, if this appeasement plan were implemented, how would we decide which children deserve to get out first? Well, maybe we can employ the model our white southern brethren used to decide which “colored” people were smart enough to vote.
A primary point of contention for people who fought to prevent the school closings is the importance of the neighborhood school. Protest signs held by children and adults announced, “We love the kids. We love this school.” “Its where they feel most comfortable.” “School is their second home.” Who can argue with the value of going to a school that is just a hop, skip and jump from where most of the children in the surrounding neighborhoods go? Just thinking about it can give you goose pimples but what if the neighborhood school is not what it used to be? What if it has not been that for a while? What if it no longer needs to be what it was? If we keep under performing school open while we figure this out, what do black children do especially since words that are said to have been spoken for the first time in the 13th century still holds true: Time waits for no man?
Opponents argued that black children and black neighborhoods and black parents were disproportionately affected by the closings. That is sadly true. Alumni whose children and grandchildren are attending the same elementary schools said the “school is like a family where people look out for each other.” That they fear the lost of this “village” is understandable. An adult said, “To lose that sense of belonging and that sense of community must be a traumatic event for a child.” And a little girl talked about being worried about being new and fitting in. These heartfelt emotions and beliefs are about attachment and should not be minimized. However, when we insist on keeping these schools open are we suggesting that black children lack the resilience to adapt to new environments? Are we suggesting that they would not, even with psychological support from the parents, teachers and community leaders, choose other schools that offer greater opportunities for academic achievement and life success?
“Protest signs held by children and adults announced that child safety is a major concern. This is as it should be. I do not know a parent for whom this is not true. And, I cannot imagine a principle or teacher for whom the safety of students is not a top priority. But, does safety and high quality education have to be pitted against each other? Does quality education for black children have to be defined by trade offs?
CPS Teacher, Craig Allen Cleve’s, describes school named for famous African-Americans as touchstones of possibilities and promise,” and asked in his article “CPS Kick Black History to the Curb, ”Where do African-American children go for inspiration, when the institutions bearing the names of such eminent individuals are eradicated?” This implies that there is a positive correlation between student performance and the person for whom a school is named. Robert Henry Lawrence, the first Black Astronaut, Mary Bethune, advocate for women and children, founder and President of Bethune-Cookman College and Arna Bontemps, novelist, cultural historian and professor are just three famous black people whose names are on underperforming schools. If Cleve’s premise is true, does this require us to ask, “What happened?” And, how would the names attached to these schools make a difference in student performance were they to remain open?
Failing school, underperforming school is a brand. Children, those who attended and those who did not, clearly understood the value of this brand. And, as is repeatedly discussed in marketing literature, a brand engages customers on the level of their senses and emotions and therefore influences their perceptions and motivations. So, just as the black community is disproportionately affected by the closings, the same can be said for a child who attended one of these “Failing” schools. While a failing school is not an indication of its students’ abilities, the students bear the burden. And the brand, I suspect, eventually had more of an impact than the name of the famous black person for whom the school is named.
CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, worked with a Commission headed a by Frank Clark, former CEO of ComEd who is known and respected for his commitment to improving the quality of life for Black people. Clark said, “I came out of retirement for one reason – a better education for Chicago children.” And, yet his reputation and involvement in the process was not enough for Black people who are mad to conclude that as hard as it might be for children to leave their neighborhood schools, closing them was the best thing, the only thing that made sense if the decision was for and about children and their future.
Closing these schools is not going to fix the problems. It is just a few significant steps in the right direction. As warned by Frederick Hess, author of The Same Thing Over and Over, we cannot, should not “romanticize” school reform. But we had to start somewhere. Closing 51 failing schools will not be any easier on some distance tomorrow than it was on that day in 2013, when CPS finally had the courage to say out loud and in public for the nation to hear, “It is not ok for the words ‘failing” and “school” to be in the same sentence, especially when black children, even those in the best circumstances, have to be prepared to face the invisible challenges that come with succeeding in “post-racial” America.”
Is CPS prepared to keep its word? We’ll see! But, they said it now. And they cannot take it back.