"An act of prejudice against our school": Closing NTA

I’ll tell you, friends, the current round of CPS school closures and snatchings is going to show where our new CEO stands. Will she listen to her constituents or march in lockstep with the mayor? Janice Jackson’s publicly proclaimed priorities reflect her roles as CPS alum, teacher, principal, and parent. Rahm’s priorities for the district, on the other hand, look more like real estate development deals for the profit of one group at the expense of another.

And in the case of NTA–a near-south, Level 1+ elementary school that CPS wants to close and move a new high school into–there’s even an email trail that bears a strong, real-estatey whiff of gentrification.

NTA served residents of the now-demolished Harold Ickes Homes when they were squeezed out of South Loop Elementary. Now they will be squeezed into South Loop, despite its struggle with overcrowding. CPS frames the closure as the righting of an old injustice:

“Years ago, when South Loop Elementary School was built, boundaries were drawn that excluded and separated low-income black children from their peers,” Jackson and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool wrote in letters to the community. “This was wrong then, and it is wrong now, and this recommendation will right a historical wrong.”

Yet there is evidence going back to 2015 that making this switch would enable hundreds of new residential units to go up–but not the long-promised public housing to replace Ickes. Presto change-o, remove the public housing and the mostly-black grade school from the neighborhood, bring in a not-mostly-black high school, and watch the property values go up, up, up.

These kinds of moves are the reason behind the twitter hashtags #RahmHatesUs and #RahmDoesntCareAboutBlackPeople. Outrageous claims, I bet you’re thinking. But the folks tweeting these hashtags know that actions speak louder than words. And Rahm’s actions via CPS in this new round of school closures tell of a man who will push his agenda no matter how many people it harms, no matter how obviously racist it looks.

CEO Janice Jackson was not in attendance at last week’s NTA closure hearing. Neither was anyone at all from the board. The mayor wasn’t there. There was a man with a presentation, however, one man, Chip Johnson from the FACE office. He chided the crowd to be respectful this evening, and not carry on in a rowdy fashion like last time. He listened impassively to the 50+ speakers given two minutes each, never taking a note, never answering a question, positioning himself as a neutral party but very much committed to the CPS plan. This entire proceeding transported me back instantaneously to the fall and winter of 2012/13’s terrible school closing hearings, and I was glad I went up to the balcony to watch because I knew that I would probably get emotional or inappropriate or both.

Because these events are an exercise in awfulness. Listening to one little child after another beg–someone (which public official listens to these things, again?)–to keep open the school they love, occasionally through tears, is something only a masochist can willingly do over and over. Which is maybe why no one from CPS leadership ever shows up.

Seven children spoke, some as young as first grade. I can’t even imagine the poise of a six-year-old who takes the mic in a cavernous church sanctuary in front of a few hundred people, but I think it has much to do with the bravery that comes from despair. These little ones all love their school and wanted to tell Chip Johnson so. They spoke of their love for teachers and school family, the building, the staff, their classes. One child knew that the reason they were taking his school was that it was a good building with good things. One child knew that the reason they were taking her school was that they could. And one middle-school aged fellow who spoke of NTA’s caring staff had to pause 3 times in order not to cry. That was my cue to start weeping openly up in the balcony.

About 50 other people spoke up on behalf of NTA. One woman said that to say there is “no” high school in the neighborhood is wrong–what is Phillips? Another who spoke of Phillips pointed out that it has no librarian, per CPS disinvestment. One dad wrestled with explaining to his child that they were taking her school because it was mostly black, and CPS does that to such schools when it wishes.  Some asked why other plans were not considered. One pointed out that the so-called achievement gap exists not just between schools or neighborhoods, but within one school–South Loop. For all its prominence it doesn’t seem to be teaching its students of color nearly as well as it should, or nearly as well as NTA does. NTA does not have an achievement gap like South Loop’s–where 7 out of 10 kids not achieving at grade level are black.

Several folks pointed out that 3rd Ward Ald. Dowell seems to have been in on the conversation about real estate development from 2015, and that to call this proposal something that “the community wants” is a travesty if not an outright lie. The NTA LSC chair asked who came up with this proposal in the first place. Others stood up to riff on Chip Johnson’s theme of respect, asking when has CPS shown respect to the communities and schools it routinely disrupts? And when has respectfulness ever worked for the communities and schools CPS pushes and shuffles and manipulates? Never. One NTA dad articulated his newly illuminated understanding of racism–prejudice alongside power. Others pointed out that the real issue is the absence of an elected school board. Three friends pointed out that there are no winners in this plan. And another question generated some of the dreaded rowdiness in the church: Where is board president Frank Clark? YEAH! WHERE IS HE? I shouted from up in the balcony, my rage now making its inappropriate debut. And Chip Johnson like a Buckingham Palace guard made no answer or even acknowledgment of the question.

Two white folks used their time at the mic to point out that they don’t like being called racist. All this violent race-related talk needed to stop, they intoned. Up in the balcony, my white self wanted to crawl under the seats.

Because what are we seeing here but the manipulation of a community based on race. An appropriation of “an asset” (what one of those non-racist white folks called NTA) by and for the dominant population at the expense of the non-dominant population. There is no other way to see this school snatching. Rahm Emanuel may not use Trump’s vulgar language but he is crafting and shaping his city to look a certain way; he uses the school district over which he inexplicably has total control to move the game pieces around the way he wants them to create a city from which black families are departing in droves. Against reason, evidence, logic, and the outcry of the community, Rahm through CPS still pushes this gentrifying and racist plan. As one truth-telling young NTA student put it, what we are looking at is “an act of prejudice against our school.” Even a child can see that.

Call CEO Janice Jackson’s office at 773/553-1500 to register your opinion about the plan to shutter the successful NTA and put onto the property a new high school for South Loop residents. 

Follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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