The teachers strike gave people a glimpse of the realities that many low-income urban students face every day. Overcrowded classrooms, weeks without textbooks, and after-school hours marred by violence.
While the teachers’ contract won gains for students in some of these areas – textbook distribution on the first day of class, 600 additional art teachers – it was only able to touch on a few of the decades-long problems plaguing Chicago schools.
Below is look at three systemic issues in Chicago Public Schools that need to be tackled. We’ve pulled the numbers from one South Side neighborhood to illustrate the problems of displacement – students forced to travel to areas that are unsafe for them because of school closures or turnarounds – safety and segregation.
The expected closing of more than 100 schools in the next five years, and the plans to open 60 charters in their place, wasn’t far from most conversations during the strike. When announcing the delegates voted to extend the strike into a second week, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the issue of school closings “undergird just about everything they talked about.”
The schools chosen for closure or turnaround are schools that are deemed low-performing, and therefore are on probation, or under enrolled. Critics of the practice have argued it displaces students and forces them to venture into neighborhoods where they may not be welcome.
A study by The Chicago Reporter found that nearly 80 percent of the homicides in Chicago since 2008 occurred in 22 African-American or Latino communities. These are many of the same communities where closures and turnarounds have been concentrated in the past 10 years.
The neighborhoods of Englewood and West Englewood have seen at least 10 schools closed since the start of the school reform program Renaissance 2010 in 2004.
West Englewood has a rate of youth homicide five times higher than the citywide mark. Meanwhile, the percentage of schools on probation in the area shows that high violence rates coincide with low school performance, making it a school likely to be on the probation list.
In the areas under the Englewood-Gresham Elementary Network and the South Side High School Network, 78 percent of those schools are on probation. The city-wide average is 45 percent.
Englewood and West Englewood have seen their share of violence — altogether the neighborhoods had 28 homicides since the start of 2012. Five of the dead were teenagers.
The Chicago Public Schools Progress Report Card shows students deal with violence inside the school as well. Each school receives a safety score that is developed from the responses of at least 50 percent of the school’s students. The scores range from a low of 1, held by Edmond Burke Elementary School on the South Side, to a high of 99, held primarily by several schools on the North Side. Fifty-five percent of schools with a quantified safety score had a score below 50.
The rate of misconduct per 100 students shows 9 percent of schools had a rate of misconduct between 50 and 251.6, meaning at least half the students had a ‘misconduct’ on their record. To tackle this, CPS officials said they recently pioneered a “holistic approach to creating safer and more positive learning environments” which includes retraining security staff, expanding the number of schools that receive security cameras, bringing more CTA Bus Trackers into schools to keep students safe when leaving school, and creating a district-wide safety team.
Advocates have argued many CPS schools in low-income neighborhoods have disproportionately harsh disciplinary policies and have critiqued the district for suspending or expelling students for non-violent infractions like being late or violating dress code. In 2011, CPS spent 15 times more on security guards in schools than on college and career counselors. The numbers, respectively, were $51.4 million compared to $3.5 million.
Segregation in CPS schools is a product of the segregation within Chicago, which still holds the dubious distinction of being the most segregated city in the country. Fifty-two percent of schools have a student body that’s 50 percent or more African-American, while another 33 percent have a student body that is50 percent or more Hispanic.
WBEZ estimated a quarter of a million black and Latino children face “extreme racial isolation” in their schools.
The strike reflected the impact that segregation has in the city in that it brought people’s attention to issues they didn’t know about, said Wendy Katten, a CPS parent and member of the Raise Your Hands Coalition, an education advocacy group.
“Parents I’ve spoken to on the North Side said they learned a lot about issues they didn’t know existed,” said Katten. “It’s easy to be disconnected from things in a city where some people never travel past certain line.”
For Katten, there is one change that will start CPS on the path toward tackling issues of safety and displacement.
“The biggest issue is who is deciding the policy,” she said. “Not enough people are doing that right now, so we have a lot of top-down policies that don’t work. It would be better if you had a group of educators, parents, professors and, yes, business people figuring out what the priorities are.”