This story appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
When the city of Chicago shuttered some fifty neighborhood schools last year, officials used antiseptic-sounding words like “underperformance” and “underutilization.” But visit neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the closings, as I did recently, and you’ll hear that the battle over the city’s schools is about something much larger: the future of the city itself and who gets to live here.
Parents, teachers and community leaders told me that the replacement of neighborhood schools serving the city’s poorest children with privately run charters that don’t, can’t be separated from the relentless gentrification that’s rapidly transforming Chicago into a wealthier, whiter city. Think urban renewal but without the bulldozers.
Take the El down from O’Hare and Chicago’s remaking is hard to ignore. Cranes dot the skyline, and as the train snakes its way through Bucktown, a formerly Polish working class neighborhood turned trendy and expensive, you pass close enough to see what looks to be the very last tenement, being demolished brick by brick. Farther down the Blue Line, what Mayor Rahm Emanuel is fond of calling the “New Chicago” really comes into view. We’re on the Near North Side now, formerly the site of the notorious Cabrini-Green housing project that, at its peak, housed 15,000 residents, most in vast towers. The neighborhood now boasts a Whole Foods, complete with a wine bar, as well as an exclusive private school: the British School of Chicago, a modern structure graced with images of smiling white students gazing toward where Cabrini’s towers once loomed. And had community opposition not ruled the day, this site would also have been home to Chicago’s newest selective enrollment high school, Barack Obama College Prep.
As for the Cabrini residents who called this neighborhood home until 2011, their whereabouts constitutes one of the great mysteries of New Chicago. What is beyond dispute is this: According to census data, Chicago has lost 200,000 of its African American residents over the past decade.
“The city is squeezing us out,” says South Side education organizer Jitu Brown. And like so many activists I spoke to, Brown views the closure of schools as an effort to replace Chicago’s poor, minority residents with wealthier inhabitants. “When you shut down a neighborhood school, you send a powerful signal to the people who’ve been living there: ‘This neighborhood isn’t for you.’ ”
While the pace of Chicago’s gentrification is unmistakable on the Near North Side, it can be harder to discern in the west side neighborhood of North Lawndale. Once the headquarters of no fewer than five corporations, including Sears Roebuck, Zenith, and Sunbeam, North Lawndale has been hemorrhaging jobs—and residents—for decades. Down from a population of more than 100,000 in the 1960s, the community claims just 38,000 residents today. Still, for all of the abandoned buildings and boarded up storefronts, we’re just fifteen minutes from the Loop, and an easy twenty-minute ride down the Eisenhower expressway from wealthy Oak Park. According to real estate tracking sites, property here is selling swiftly as buyers anticipate future development.
When Chicago public school officials announced plans to close two schools in North Lawndale, they cited dwindling student enrollment. But local activist Valerie Leonard, who grew up in North Lawndale and whose father was a principal at the recently closed Paderewski Elementary School, believes that the school system’s own policy of opening so-called schools of choice here exacerbated the student shortage. And before that, says Leonard, the community had been losing students to a housing crisis that dates back even before the 2010 foreclosure crisis that ravaged this area.
When the Department of Housing and Urban Development condemned a mile-long stretch of multi-unit housing in the heart of North Lawndale, the city lost more than 10 percent of its housing stock overnight.
“Those were kids who attended neighborhood schools and suddenly they’re gone,” says Leonard. “At the same time, you have this push for all of these new schools even as our student population is shrinking.”
Two-thirds of North Lawndale’s schools are now charters, including a KIPP (one of the national charter chains) school that’s just down the street from where Martin Luther King lived briefly in 1967. The area bordering scenic Douglas Park, which is at the center of an ambitious plan to redevelop North Lawndale, has no traditional public schools left. Leonard believes that the city’s growing roster of college-prep-style charters is no replacement for schools like Paderewski that served as community anchors.
“The charters are harder for kids to stay in, and getting kicked out makes it harder to do well at your next school,” says Leonard. “Those kids end up back in the few remaining neighborhood schools, which are now the schools of last resort.”
Leonard also offers the clearest explanation I’ve heard as to how the remaking of the city and its schools go hand in hand. “Economic development and education reform in Chicago are being driven by the same people,” she says. She’s referring to the powerful Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, a veritable who’s who of local captains of industry. The group’s executive committee is chaired by former banker Harrison Steans, whose Steans Family Foundation has been a driving force behind efforts to redevelop North Lawndale and expand charter schools in the community.
In fact, the Civic Committee seems to view charters as the cure for all that ails Chicago’s poor neighborhoods. Visit the website for the committee’s education initiative and you’ll be greeted by smiling minority students in KIPP uniforms and the bald claim that the city’s neighborhood schools have failed.
But nearly two decades into Chicago’s charter experiment, the sales pitch may be wearing thin. A recent study by the University of Minnesota Law School found that Chicago’s charters have weakened the larger school system and heightened segregation in the city’s schools.
“You keep thinking you’ve reached a place beyond which nothing can be worse, and yet the charters have managed to expand the threshold of segregation, expand the threshold of low performance in Chicago,” study author Myron Orfield says. Orfield’s study is the latest in a series of studies to demonstrate that the city’s charters have been no match for the endemic poverty and segregation that blunt the prospects of so many of the city’s students.
A Chicago Tribune poll taken this summer found that 77 percent of voters disapproved of Emanuel’s policy of expanding charter schools at the expense of neighborhood schools. Among African Americans, disapproval was even higher. A full 83 percent of black voters gave Emanuel’s charter policy a thumbs down.
Then there’s the taint of corruption that clings to some of the city’s most prominent charter networks.
UNO charter, which operates sixteen charter schools serving nearly 8,000 Latino students, is currently under investigation by the IRS and the SEC for a long list of shady dealings, the exposure of which forced the ouster of its politically connected CEO, Juan Rangel.
And don’t forget Concept Schools, Inc., the pet charter network of Illinois’s powerful Speaker of the House, Mike Madigan, which was recently raided by the FBI for what agents described as “an ongoing white-collar crime matter.”
Troy LaRaviere, the principal of Blaine Elementary School in the Lakeview neighborhood on the Northside, keeps a running tally of stories like these, not to mention a stack of studies, including one he recently conducted, on charter school performance.
“The data that is emerging paints a very clear picture that [charters] are doing far worse than neighborhood public schools at growing student academic skills,” says LaRaviere, who leads a group of principals critical of the direction of education reform in Chicago, including the expansion of charter schools. “The students in those schools are losing out and the private management companies that benefit from the public dollars that flow into charter schools are benefiting from those students’ loss.”
In Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side, students and education activists are fighting to save Dyett High School, the last open-enrollment high school in the neighborhood. Back in 2012, the mayoral-appointed Chicago Board of Education voted to close Dyett after its senior class, down to just thirteen students, graduates at the end of this school year. The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School has been pushing hard to turn Dyett into what they call a “global lead- ership and green technology” high school open to any neighborhood student. When Chicago public school officials recently announced plans to hire a private operator to run the school, local activists like Jitu Brown were having none of it.
“Why can’t we have public schools? Why do low-income minority students need to have their schools run by private contractors?” asks Brown, who is the education organizer for the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization. “Why aren’t these students entitled to the same kind of schools and the same kind of programs as students on the North Side?
“We want this school to anchor the community for the next seventy-five years,” Brown adds. “We’re not interested in a short-term contract that can be broken.”
Brown also questions just how fair the Chicago public school search for an outside contractor to run the school is likely to be. This is an allegation I hear again and again during my travels. The same neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the 2013 school closures have seen many of their remaining public schools taken over by the Academy for Urban School Leadership. Now essentially a district within the district, the organization currently runs thirty-two Chicago schools, attended by 18,000 mostly poor, minority students. When it takes over a school, all of the staff and teachers are replaced, the latter by a Teach For America-like corps of teacher trainees from Chicago’s National-Louis University. Brown and other education activists charge that the relationship between the academy and the board of education is rife with conflicts of interest. “The people who benefit from these deals are insiders,” says Brown.
Beyond the technical questions of who will run Dyett High, or even the kind of programs and curriculum the school’s students will have, looms a far larger question: Who gets to live in a neighborhood like Bronzeville? Brown sees the fight over Dyett as one for the very existence of Chicago’s poorest residents.
That Chicago has no answer for this question is apparent in the tortured tale of Bronzeville’s public schools. When the city tore down public housing high rises more than a decade ago, nearby schools went, too. Students at the newly closed schools were then shuffled between the neighborhood schools that remained until these too were shut, or turned around, due to low test scores. In the past decade, Bronzeville has lost twenty-five of its neighborhood schools. The “schools of choice” that have replaced them—an academically selective high school, an endless array of college prep charters—are more restrictive in how they admit students.
Brown and the other members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High are planning more civil disobedience as they press their case to make Dyett a genuine community anchor. “This is not a done deal,” says Brown.
Brown sees the fight over Dyett as a litmus test, not just for Bronzeville, but for a city that seems intent on making life harder for its low-income residents. His message to the Chicago public schools is starkly simple: “Treat all students like they’re precious.”