Saving the Chicago School System

Alex LaFosta

On September 10, 2012, parents, students, and educators rallied together as the Chicago Teacher’s Union announced a strike. The decision to strike, which was Chicago’s first in 25 years, came after the CTU grew frustrated with the lack of progress during negotiations with the city for better pay and job security, according to the New York Times. The protest quickly gained worldwide attention. Understandably so, since according to The Guardian, it was America’s third-largest school walkout in history and the requests of CTU seemed reasonable to most critics.



After nine days, the highly publicized strike came to an end as the teachers and students returned to the classroom. The deal struck with the city and the union called for a 17 percent raise in salary over the course of four years and a slight edit to the state-mandated law that teachers’ salary increases will be directly tied to standardized test scores. CTU President Karen Lewis was quoted in an official press release, after the announcement that the strike was coming to an end that she felt the school system was “moving in the right direction.” It is doubtful that Lewis could foresee the future, as conditions of Chicago Public Schools seemingly grew worse as the months went by.


School Closings

In June 2013, the Chicago Public Schools made the decision to close 49 schools -- one of the largest closing of schools in any American city in years. The CPS made the tough decision facing a near $1 billion budget deficit, which they are still scrambling to contain.

After the announcement of the school closings, it was evident that mass layoffs were inevitable. Later in the month, the Chicago Sun Times reported that of the 48 schools to be closed, 420 teachers and 1,005 school staff were to be subsequently fired. Also, with bus aids from closing schools and staffers from schools set for “turnaround,” the district’s total number of layoffs reached over2,000.


According to a contract between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union, many teachers from closing schools either did not have a chance to follow their students to available jobs in the receiving school or did not have tenure. Many critics fear there won’t be any positive change in the district until there is a pension reform. CPS spokeswoman Becky Carrol was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying, “We’re not going to be able to cut our way out of this crisis.” Carrol went on to note that pension payments are growing this fiscal year by an additional $400 million, and little can be done without a reform plan. “Absent pension reform in Springfield, we had very few options available to us to close that gap,” Carrol told the Tribune.


A potentially negative effect the school closings may have on students is that after the closings take place, the students will be transferred to other schools. Many activists and teachers argue that this would affect the quality of education for transferred students, as well as for students in receiving schools. Linda Lutton of WBEZ reported that, “According to records, 50,421 children are in homerooms that are over the suggested class size limits.”


Professor of Mathematical Statistics at Harvard University Fredrick Mosteller conducted a study to determine whether children perform better academically when in smaller classrooms. The study showed that students who had “originally been in small classes scored higher than those who had been in regular-sized classes.” Certain members of the Teacher’s Union have expressed frustration with crowded classes and seem concerned that the school closings will only cause more problems. Chicago Teacher’s Union financial secretary Kristine Mayle told WBEZ that the problem of overcrowded schools “has been going on for years… and with this round of closures I think it’s going to make it even worse.”


Chicago city Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been harshly criticized for his drastic changes to education policy since being elected in 2011. In an interview with WBEZ, Mayor Emanuel said, in response to a question regarding his feelings towards closing low-performing schools, that “There are times when drastic measures are needed to ensure our children are getting the education they deserve. Schools that do not deliver for our kids need to be addressed.”

According to Steven Yaccino of the New York Times, the Chicago community has been quite vocal about their disapproval of the Chicago Board of Education’s decision, but the mass closings are expected to save about $500 million over the course of 10 years. Chief Executive of Chicago Public Schools Barbara Byrd-Bennett, defended the Board’s decision by stating “The greatest challenge facing our school system right now is that tens of thousands of children every year are trapped in underutilized schools and under-resourced schools.” 


Some of those children she speaks of would disagree. The announcement alone had a negative academic effect on students. WBEZ reported that performance levels of students attending schools to be closed this year began to decline shortly after the announcement of the closing.  Students aren’t simply staying silent on the issue, however. In fact, one miniature militant has become the biggest activist in the fight to save the windy city schools.

Young Protestor

One of the most notable challengers of the recent Chicago Public school closings is one of their very own students. 9-year-old Asean Johnson has become the unofficial face of the movement to better the conditions of public schools in the city. He has been quite vocal about his opposition to Mayor Emmanuel’s education reform, and has taken his message from the Chicago Board of Education, to the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. 


During a three-day protest in May of 2013, Johnson gave a speech that stunned the audience. In the speech, which now has over 300, 000 views on YouTube, Johnson belts “We are not toys,” with passion beyond his years. “We will not be moved without a fight.” The third grader from Marcus Garvey Elementary School went on to say that his school is “exceptional” and that he does not understand why his was on the list of those to be closed. I don’t understand why they’re [planning to close schools] that have all the things that the CPS claims they’re supposed to have.”


 Johnson then mentions the potential safety risk of sending closing school students to receiving schools. “They don’t like us there. If you send us behind a gang territory where the kids don’t like us, what do you think it’s gonna be? Violence or safety?”

Student Safety

Clinical Professor of Law for Cornell Law School Sital Kalantry and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights recently sent a letter of allegation to the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights asking the international body to monitor Chicago’s school closings, claiming that the collective closing of schools is in violation of several human rights.


In the letter, Kalantry warns that Chicago children traveling to school through certain areas to attend newly assigned schools in hostile neighborhoods will face a “significant risk of violence.” Kalantry went on to state,A change in just one block of a commute can result in entering enemy turf and invite gang-related violence.” The mass school closings have placed Chicago students in a dangerous position – causing many to walk through known gang territories in order to make it to-and-from school. The letter also points out that African American children comprise 42 percent of Chicago’s public school students, but represent 80 percent of the children who would be impacted by the school closings. The Associated Press quoted CPS budget director Ginger Ostro insisting that the closings are not racially motivated and that "It doesn't necessarily mean danger. ... We are taking steps to prevent potential risks."

Chicago has a long history of gang violence, specifically among children. In January of 2012, Kari Lyderson and Carlos Javier Ortiz of the Chicago Reporter reported that more young people are killed in Chicago than any other city in America. From 2008 to early 2012, more than 500 youths were killed in Chicago… on the city’s South, Southwest and West sides.”


Lauren Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Sun-Times reported that U.S District Court Judge John Z. Lee denied injunctions against closing schools, allowing the sizeable school closing to continue as planned.


Safety Measures


On the first day of the 2013-2014 school year, to ensure the safety of students traveling to new schools, hundreds of newly hired security guards helped escort children through known gang territories, according to the Associated Press. NBC Chicago reported that more than 600 workers would be spread over 50 routes to create secure means of access to receiving schools.


Though the “Safe Passage” program, vocally endorsed by Mayor Emmanuel, is a clear sign that officials are concerned about the issue of child safety but some parents are still skeptical of its success or longevity. Annie Stovall, grandparent of Chicago Public School student, told the AP that though she welcomes the “Safe Passage” program, she does not feel that the show of force will last. “I think its just show-and-tell right now,” Stovall said. “Five, six weeks down the road, let’s see what’s going to happen.”


A full year after a strike that seemed to be the first step toward change in a vitiating school system, Chicago Public Schools seem worse off than before. Now that summer is over and the 2013-2014 school year is in full swing, teachers, students, and parents alike hope that progress is imminent. CPS seems optimistic that the newly amended budget that includes a $400 million dollar cuts to administration will help offset the structures deficit. In an official statement on the Chicago Public Schools website, the CPS ensures that their difficult decisions have been to protect investments in programs that improve education of students, rather than hinder it and that what schools need more than anything right now, is support.


Author Bio:

Alex LaFosta is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: People's World (Flickr); Esparta Palma (Flickr); Chicago Mayor's Office.

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