A bright welcoming banner with blue and yellow lettering offsets the bleakness of the long, gray concrete wall across the street from Mahalia Jackson Elementary School. The canvas banner has cracks in it that runs across Jackson’s portrait, yet the face of the woman known as the Queen of Gospel beams out at the world.
This is what Joseph Davis drives by most days. Past the blocks-long wall with a Metra track running atop it and several long underpasses below, past the banner and into the parking lot. He works as a janitor at the elementary school--cleaning bathrooms, tidying up the lunchroom. He likes the work. At 22, he’s been doing janitorial work at Jackson and other schools since he graduated from another Chicago Public School, George H. Corliss High School, in 2008.
But there’s a chance he won’t be there long. Jackson is one of 54 schools that CPS plans to close. Its students will move to other buildings, the teachers will look for other jobs, as will all of the support staff.
Davis sees his job of keeping the school clean as an important one. “When they do health inspections, they rely on us,” he says. He is worried about losing the job he has held since the start of the school year.
“Everyone has a family. Everyone has to pay bills,” Davis says. “It’s really nerve-racking. I have this job now. Now my job is gone. We are pretty much just waiting to get laid off.”
Unlike the teachers, that fought for CPS to institute a safety net if they lose their jobs through a school closings, there is little recourse for Davis to find another janitorial job at CPS. The Service Employees International Union, which represents Davis and other custodian and lunchroom workers at CPS, says that 2,108 custodians and lunchroom workers will lose their jobs if all of the 54 schools are closed. Jackson has two other custodians besides Davis, six lunchroom workers, and one lunchroom manager.
Davis makes $13 an hour and supports his girlfriend and their 3-year-old daughter on his full-time wages.
Each day he cleans the bathrooms several times a day, tidies up the lunchroom after students eat, empties the garbage, sweeps the halls and cleans the classrooms at the end of the school day.
CPS is contractually obligated to keep 821 full-time custodians in the district for the 681 schools at all times. Any reductions in the custodian ranks would first come from private or outsourced firms that CPS works with, which are non-unionized workers and hired on a contractual basis, according to Izabela Miltko, a communications specialist with the Service Employees International Union’s Local 1.
But this doesn’t mean that CPS will be able to retain the staffers who lose their jobs from the closings, nor is the district legally obligated to, Miltko said. CPS did not reply to repeated requests for comment on the record.
“Of course, we are going to fight for those workers,” Miltko says. “But it’s really glum out there. It’s hard to get jobs right now. We expect a lot of the people will end up with minimum-wage jobs, or worse, no jobs.”
A report by Service Employees International Union, the Chicago Teachers Union and UNITE HERE, estimated that 15 percent of households in Chicago has a member belonging to one of the unions employing workers in schools, meaning many families will therefore be adversely affected by the closures.“It’s the toughest communities that will be affected, that are already recovering from poverty, violence and neglect” and who will then have to deal with the loss in income, Miltko said.
Davis lives in the South Shore neighborhood, where the 2011 American Community Survey shows that 42.3 percent of families with children below 5 years old in the ZIP code live below the poverty line. Where he works, in Auburn Gresham, the poverty rate for families with children under 5 is 40.8 percent.
Now--and he hopes for not too long--Davis will be another unemployed resident in a neighborhood that’s struggling to keep its head above water.
As for Jackson students, 75 percent of whom are low-income, Davis sees himself in them.
He spent his last year of high school living in a shelter with his parents. He relied on a few of his teachers to provide emotional support and, at times, something as simple as a clean T-shirt.
“I understand some of the kids story,” he says. “When I see some of the kids come here with frustrations, I understand why they are aggravated sometimes. Some of the kids, they stay after school and just don’t want to leave because the teachers give them the attention they are lacking.”
While there is a chance the school will stay open--it was one of 10 schools that hearing officers earlier this month suggested should be kept open, because of its high special-education population--Davis is already keeping his eye open for jobs.
Ideally, he’d like a job with CPS, or with the private janitorial service he was working for before starting at Jackson. He may also go back to school and learn to be a boiler engineer, the person who oversees a building’s heating and cooling--a job he hopes will help keep him and his family afloat.
“If it don’t go the way I hope” and the school doesn’t stay open, “I’ll be looking,” Davis says.