The news of school closures has the City of Chicago abuzz. It is estimated that 80-120 schools will be closed by the city government in the coming years. The logic behind it is sound. Businesses who don't bring in enough customers go out of business, and a new business with similar wares pops up and is more successful. Therefore, schools that are under enrolled must be closed, and replaced with charter schools. It's sound logic if you think of a good education as a commodity and not a right.
Many are speculating that the schools that will be closed will be in Chicago's poorer neighborhoods in the south and south west sides of the city. These neighborhoods have been hit hard by the housing collapse with many of their blocks speckled with foreclosure signs, and the closing of neighborhood schools will only further bring down the value of homes in those areas of Chicago. Looking at a list of seven aspects that affect home values, Chicago's south and southwest side neighborhoods have two of the main ones: closed schools and foreclosed homes. These school closures are promising to make it even harder to bring up the property levels in these neighborhoods that directly affect education.
Another problem with closing schools that have been in communities for decades is that old school buildings are not readily adaptable. They are expensive to repurpose or demolish. Only four CPS buildings have been demolished in the past 15 years. So, the charters schools that are set to replace the closed schools will have to be in a new location. This means that the old school building is left to rot, and possibly become a haven for the drug and sex trade like many of the foreclosed homes in Chicago.
Neighborhood schools have a role to play in democracy as well. They give the people of the neighborhood a sense of place and connection to their community, which enhances their civic engagement, a building block of democracy. It is the one place in the entire neighborhood where there is guaranteed interaction with everyone who lives in the same neighborhood. Not to mention that generations of families graduate from one school. The school and the connections built from that school are a part of the identity of the neighborhood residents. School closures threaten that identity and America's identity as a democracy.
Schools also aren't just at metaphorical heart of the community; they are also at the physical center of the community. They are conveniently located at the center of communities so that students and parents have easy, walkable access to them. The new charter schools cannot be built on the grounds of the old school, because it is too expensive, as mentioned previously. So, they are going to have to be farther away from some members of the community, and that could make a huge difference in a struggling families budget if they now have to worry about having to factor in travel expenses to go to a new school. Get ready for a lapse in absences, CPS.
Another issue that arises with closing down schools is that if the child doesn't go to the replacement charter school, he or she will go to another, much farther away, neighborhood school that wasn't closed. Considering the closures are happening in areas of Chicago where gang violence is prevalent, it is not a safe idea to have kids crossing different gang turfs. In a year where Chicago reached 400 homicides (many of them gang-related), are we really going to further risk children's lives by forcing them to travel new grounds they don't know, and that could be potentially dangerous? That doesn't sound like something that is in the best interest of the child or community.
People, especially politicians, tend to forget that neighborhood schools are often a reflection of the people who live in the neighborhood. The ramifications of being born poor or rich in this country affect everything, especially education. So, yes, there are going to be stark differences in the test scores of rich neighborhood schools compared to those of poor neighborhood schools. In some neighborhoods (the rich ones), parental involvement, demographics and socio-economic factors create an environment that allows for the support of some programs that could not work in other neighborhoods (the poorer ones). Parents in poor neighborhoods are working 40+ hour weeks and getting paid minimum wage. They physically cannot give the resources required for educational success to their children even though they want to.
And that is where neighborhood schools come in to the equation. They help fill in the gaps that, due to outside forces, parents cannot give to their children. Schools need resources to fill in those, often times large, gaps in achievement. Yet, when you look at the state of education in this country, you see schools fighting each other for limited resources, but, somehow, there is always money for the military and another war. We have a system that sees schools struggling and instead of offering assistance, funding is taken away. Neighborhood schools, especially poorer ones, need constant resources to help their students overcome the barriers of poverty that are reflected in their test scores. The best way to find out what schools need is by asking the teachers. We should use CPS teachers to help create targeted, strategic ways that help underprivileged children learn. And no, that does not include school closures, but rather more counselors, more libraries, more screenings for disabilities, smaller classrooms, less testing and more teaching. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, but it can't be that without support or resources. Start funding schools, and stop closing them.
Check out my other posts on CTU and education: