Stunning New Book Contextualizes Tragedy of 2013 School Closures in Chicago’s Hyper-Segregated History

Eve Ewing’s new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, explores the blindness, deafness, and heartlessness of technocratic, “portfolio school reform”* as it played out in 50 school closings in Chicago at the end of the school year in 2013. After months of hearings, the Chicago Public Schools didn’t even send formal letters to the teachers, parents and students in the schools finally chosen for closure.  People learned which schools had finally been shut down when the list was announced on television.

Eve Ewing, a professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and a former teacher in one of the closed schools, brings her training as a sociologist to explore this question: “But why do people care about these failing schools?” (p. 13)  In four separate chapters, Ewing examines the question from different perspectives: (1) the meaning for the community of the closure of Dyett High School and the hunger strike that reopened the school; (2) the history of segregation in Chicago as part of the Great Migration, followed by the intensification of segregation in thousands of public housing units built and later demolished in the Bronzeville neighborhood; (3) the narratives of community members, teachers, parents and students about the meaning of their now-closed schools in contrast to the narrative of the portfolio school planners at Chicago Public Schools; and (4) the mourning that follows when important community institutions are destroyed.

We hear an English teacher describing the now-closed school where she had taught: “I never considered us as a failing school or failing teachers or failing students. I felt like pretty much everyone in that building was working really hard for those kids…. Trying to push them forward as far as they could go.” (p. 135)

And we hear Rayven Patrick, an eighth grader speaking about the importance of Mayo elementary school at the public hearing which preceded the school’s closure: “Most of my family have went to Mayo. My grandma attended. My mother, my aunt. I came from a big family. The Patricks are known in Mayo. Like, we have been going there for so long. Over the years I have watched lots of students graduate, and they were able to come back to their teachers and tell them how high school has been going. Most of them are in college now, and I see them come to the few teachers that are left at Mayo and tell them of their experience of college and high school. This year I will graduate. And most of the students at Mayo… They’re family to me.  Little sisters and little brothers. I walk through the hallway, and every kid knows who I am. I’m able to speak to them, and I honestly, I wanna be able to watch them graduate.” (pp. 108-109)

Ewing also shares the justification for the 50 school closures by Barbara Byrd-Bennett, then Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed school district CEO: “But for too long, children in certain parts of our city have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom because they are trapped in underutilized schools. These underutilized schools are also under-resourced.” (p. 4)

Throughout the book, teachers, students, parents, and grandparents point out the irony that Byrd-Bennett has criticized their now-closed school for being under-resourced.  She is herself the person with enough power to have changed the funding formula that left some schools with ever-diminishing resources. Community members also complain again and again that at the same time neighborhood public schools are being shut down, the school district has been encouraging rapid growth in the number of charter schools.

But Ewing, the sociologist, also examines the justification read at the school closure hearing by Brittany Meadows, the Chicago Public Schools Portfolio Planner.  Here is just a short section of Meadows’s explanation: “To understand the enrollment efficiency range of a facility, Chicago Public Schools utilizes its space utilization standards which are located in your binder at Tab 14. The enrollment efficiency range is plus or minus 20% of the facility’s ideal enrollment.  For elementary school buildings, the ideal enrollment is defined as the number of allotted homerooms multiplied by 30…  As such, the enrollment efficiency range of the Mayo facility is tween 552 and 828 students.  As I stated, the enrollment of Mayo as of the 20th day of attendance for the 2012-2013 school year is 408.  This number is below the enrollment efficiency range, and thus the school is underutilized.” (p. 100)

Ewing responds to Meadows’ presentation: “Meadows closes with the language of logic: ‘This number is below the enrollment efficiency range’….  Meadows presents this data using an ‘if…then’ statement, explaining the calculation of the metrics without explaining the validity of the constructs involved.  In this manner the school closure proposal appears natural and inevitable.  Well, of course, since this number is below the enrollment efficiency rate, this is what happens next…  The logic implied in Meadows’s statement reflects a certain view of reality: the idea that the most important aspects of the educational enterprise can easily be captured in no-nonsense, non-debatable numeric facts.  These numbers are taken to be unbiased and a truer representation of what happens in a school building than more qualitative measures (teacher observations, for instance), which are seen as overly subjective or unreliable. These quantifiable facts are also seen as a necessity—perhaps an imperfect measure, but a needed force for decision making….” (p. 101) (Emphasis in the original.)

Not only Ewing’s chapter about the Bronzeville community’s grief for its closed schools but also the entire book portrays the enormity of the historic mistake of technocratic, top-down school reform in Chicago. You must read Ghosts in the Schoolyard to hear the sadness of the children and their families and the despair of the teachers.  At the end of her story, Ewing wonders: “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… What is the history that has brought us to this moment  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (pp. 158-159)

*The think tank that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.”

What Is the Legacy of Renaissance 2010 School Choice in Chicago?

On Tuesday evening’s PBS NewsHour, I was surprised as I listened to an interview about the tragic gun violence in Chicago last weekend to hear the speaker name public high school closures as among the causes. Certainly exploding economic inequality, poverty, lack of jobs, the presence of street gangs, and other structural factors are contributing to this long, hot summer in Chicago. But Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, blamed Renaissance 2010, a now-20-year-old charter school expansion program, for today’s violence.

Professor Williams expressed particular concern about the phase out of neighborhood high schools: “(Y)ou’re seeing the violence on the West Side and the South Sides of Chicago because, about 20 years ago, in the early 2000s, the city of Chicago implemented some very, very bad public policy. The most damaging of those policies was the policy of Renaissance 2010, when Chicago basically privatized, through charter schools, neighborhood public elementary and high schools.  It became a serious problem, because many of the high schools and communities that had long traditions of street organizations caused young African-American males to be afraid to leave out of their communities, going to new schools throughout the city of Chicago. So, basically, from the early 2000s, too many young Afrcan-American males haven’t been going to school, meaning that they don’t have life prospects. They can’t get jobs. They’re self-medicated to deal with the stress in their community. And it’s driving a lot of the violence.”

The other speaker in the NewsHour‘s interview, Tamar Manasseh, runs a volunteer organization providing community meals at the corner of Chicago’s 75th Street and South Stewart Avenue—meals that provide food, and meals that try to build community to compensate for the destruction of community institutions.  Ms. Manasseh explained: “And it’s not just about the kids. It’s about the wellness of the entire community… There are 100 other organizations just like me who are out here every day in their own way making a contribution to making communities better… Englewood will not have any public schools in the fall. And these kids that Professor Williams spoke of, they will have no options of a public high school in Englewood.”

The research literature has documented that in Chicago, Portfolio School Reform and the subsequent expansion of school choice has been undermining public schools, which have previously been central institutions binding communities together. This PBS NewsHour interview is the first I’ve seen in the mainstream press to connect the dots between the expansion of school choice and the shredding of the fabric of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

What was Renaissance 2010?  After mayoral control was established in 1995 in Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced one of the first Portfolio School Reform plans—to launch marketplace school choice by quickly adding privatized charter schools. In a climate of competition, the school district would encourage families to choose a school. Then the school district would manage the district like a stock portfolio—phasing out weak schools and schools that would become under-enrolled due to competition. The school district would keep on authorizing new charter schools to keep marketplace competition alive. Renaissance 2010 was managed by none other than Arne Duncan, who later became the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, and after that, U.S. Secretary of Education.

The complication was that many very poor neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago were already losing population, and the expansion of competitive school choice accelerated the under-enrollment of neighborhood schools. Later, in May of 2013, Chicago Public Schools closed 50 “under-enrolled” schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides. These are the neighborhoods where today three more high schools are being closed and then consolidated in 2019 into one new high school. Now that Renaissance 2010’s Portfolio School Reform-School Choice plan has been operating for more than a decade, people are paying attention to what have, apparently, been its long-term consequences.

Here is how the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research describes the impact of the 2013 public school closures on Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.”  The report continues: “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

The Consortium on School Research continues: “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning… The intensity of the feelings of loss were amplified in cases where schools had been open for decades, with generations of families attending the same neighborhood school.  Losing their closed schools was not easy and the majority of interviewees spoke about the difficulty they had integrating and socializing into the welcoming schools.”  “Even though welcoming school staff and students did not lose their schools per se, many also expressed feelings of loss because incorporating a large number of new students required adjustments… Creating strong relationships and building trust in welcoming schools after schools closed was difficult.. Displaced staff and students, who had just lost their schools, had to go into unfamiliar school environments and start anew. Welcoming school communities also did not want to lose or change the way their schools were previously.”

Jitu Brown is a Chicago educator and community organizer. He was also one of the leaders of a 34 day hunger strike in September of 2015—a hunger strike that eventually forced Chicago Public Schools to reopen Dyett High School as the only open-admission public high school in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

When the school reopened in September of 2016, this is what the Chicago Tribune’s  Marwa Eltagouri and Juan Perez Jr. reported: “Families living nearby once again have an open-enrollment high school in their neighborhood. Parents don’t have to worry about their children taking buses or trains to far-off schools. And they don’t have to send their kids to privately run charter schools if they want to take honors or Advanced Placement classes.  A first day of school at Dyett wasn’t supposed to have happened this fall. But after a yearslong protest by community leaders that included a 34-day hunger strike, Chicago Public Schools reversed its decision to close Dyett at the end of the 2014-15 school year.”

Eltagouri and Perez quote Jitu Brown describing the need for Dyett High School to reopen: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools, contract schools or alternative schools. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”

Jitu Brown is also the Director of the National Journey for Justice Alliance.  Brown addresses the tragedy of school closures in his Forward to a new report, FailingBrown v Board” published in May 2018 by the Journey for Justice Alliance:  “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”

Dyett High School Opens: 2015 Hunger Strike Redefines Meaning of ‘School Closure’

The Chicago Tribune published a major story covering the first day of school on the Tuesday after Labor Day at Dyett High School in Chicago. Why was Dyett’s first day of school this year so important?  Here is reporter Juan Perez Jr.: “Freshmen walking through the doors of Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts on the South Side experienced feelings similar to those of new high school students everywhere, a mix of first-day jitters and bashful excitement. But for the Washington Park and Bronzeville neighborhoods, the first day of classes Tuesday at Dyett had deeper significance. Families living nearby once again have an open-enrollment high school in their neighborhood. Parents don’t have to worry about their children taking buses or trains to far-off schools. And they don’t have to send their kids to privately run charter schools if they want to take honors or Advanced Placement classes.”

Perez continues: “A first day of school at Dyett wasn’t supposed to have happened this fall. But after a yearslong protest by community leaders that included a 34-day hunger strike, Chicago Public Schools reversed its decision to close Dyett at the end of the 2014-2015 school year. ‘When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools, contract schools or alternative schools.  You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same,’ said Jitu Brown, a community activist who took part in the hunger strike.”

Only a year ago, led by community organizer Jitu Brown, hunger strikers were sitting in Washington Park protesting not only the scheduled closing of Dyett High School but also a federal education policy that has defined school closure as one of the four prescribed ways to turn around a low scoring school.  Chicago had closed a record 50 schools at the end of 2013—justifying the plan as a way to turn around so-called “failing” schools and describing uneven enrollment patterns.

Beyond saving a neighborhood high school for Chicago’s Bronzeville Neighborhood, the Dyett Hunger Strike significantly changed the national conversation about test-and-punish school policy. Hunger strikers redefined the meaning of “school closure.” While No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top had defined school closure as what was called “a school-improvement turnaround strategy,” the Dyett hunger strikers denounced school closure as an example of disparate treatment of the residents of Black and Brown neighborhoods across America’s poorest cities. Jitu Brown has been able to leverage the meaning of the hunger strike because Brown also leads the national Journey4Justice Alliance, that has been protesting the recent widespread use of school closures.

Rachel Cohen, writing for The American Prospect, describes the impact of school closures on neighborhoods: “While black students were 40 percent of Chicago’s school district population in 2013, they made up 88 percent of those affected by the closures. In Philadelphia, black students made up 58 percent of the district, but 81 percent of those affected by closures.” Cohen continues: “(T)hree years later, Chicago residents are still reeling from the devastating closures—a policy decision that has not only failed to bring about notable academic gains, but has also destabilized communities, crippled small businesses, and weakened local property values. With the city struggling to sell or repurpose most of the closed schools, dozens of large buildings remain vacant, becoming targets of crime and vandalism throughout poor neighborhoods.” Cohen adds: “In Chicago… 87.5 percent of students affected by closures did not move to significantly higher-performing schools.”

In 2014, on the 6oth anniversary of Brown V. Board of Education, community groups in New Orleans, Chicago, and Newark filed federal civil rights complaints under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protesting widespread school closures in their school districts.  Cohen explains: “They alleged that school closures in their cities have had a racially discriminatory impact on children and communities of color.  The groups received legal assistance from the Advancement Project, a civil-rights organiziation. Jadine Johnson, an attorney with the Advancement Project, says they chose to file Title VI complaints because they wanted to raise disparate impact claims. ‘When districts are making these decisions they don’t say, ‘we’ll close black and Latino schools.’ They’ll say ‘we’ll close schools that are under-enrolled or under-achieving.’  she says.  ‘But those decisions can still have discriminatory effects on black and brown students.’ ”

Just this summer, in an important piece published in The Hill, Judith Brown Dianis, Executive Director of Advancement Project, and Jitu Brown, describe the three complaints filed in 2014.  One of the ways students in America’s cities are being deprived of basic opportunities is “through systematic and targeted school closures. We know this because we’ve been organizing against school closures, which are occurring in predominantly African American, Latino and low-income communities. Across the country, these communities have watched as their schools, teachers, friendships and shared history are eliminated. Many students are pushed out of one school only to be forced to attend another school that is further away, with less experienced teachers, similar resource inequities and instability.”

The Dyett Hunger Strike a year ago and the filing of civil rights complaints has made a difference. In their report for The Hill, Judith Brown Dianis and Jitu Brown explain that last December, after a two year investigation, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reached an agreement with the Newark Public Schools acknowledging the disproportionate impact of school closures on the city’s African American students and confirming that the school closures “did not appear to afford affected students any measurable, improved educational outcomes.” The agreement requires the Newark school district to investigate whether and how students from closed schools were affected academically and how their safe passage to school, and their access to special services (for disabled students) were impacted when schools were closed. Further, the district must evaluate and report on how the location of school facilities and the pupil capacity of existing buildings were affected and how the current location and availability of facilities affects Newark students’ overall access to education.

The Broader Meaning of Chicago’s Dyett Hunger Strike

The website of the New Yorker magazine just published a fascinating piece by Eve Ewing, written to mark the importance of the recent 34-day hunger strike in Chicago that pressured Rahm Emanuel’s administration to preserve Dyett High School in that city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

According to a report by WBEZ Chicago, though the hunger strikers did not achieve all of their demands, they did secure a promise that the new Dyett high school will, “have a neighborhood boundary, meaning all children in the attendance-area could attend without having to first meet minimum test-score requirements or go through a lottery (nearly all Chicago high schools opened in the past decade have had citywide boundaries and require students to apply; no one is guaranteed admission).”  “(T)he roots of the fight began years ago, when CPS shook up the local schools in the Bronzeville-Kenwood-Washington Park area by turning the high school, King, into a test-in school. Dyett became the default attendance-area high school for the area…. The school board voted in 2012 to phase Dyett out; the last class graduated in June with 13 students.”

In her New Yorker piece, Ewing sets Chicago Public Schools’ closure of Dyett High School in the context of the history and impact of Chicago’s public housing—a history of public policy reinforcing neighborhood segregation in Chicago, where poverty remains concentrated decades after African Americans came north in the Great Migration to escape just such conditions.  In the 1950s, “When C.H.A. (Chicago Housing Authority) officials appeared before the city council with proposals for new housing construction, white aldermen routinely slashed at the lists of prospective locations until those projects slated for black communities were all that remained.  What resulted was the construction of five more (in addition to the original Ida B. Wells project) high-density housing projects, bringing the total in Bronzeville to eight thousand two hundred and thirty-three units…. In 1970, the families who lived in the Robert Taylor Homes… averaged six people each—a total of six thousand two hundred and fifty adults and twenty thousand four hundred and forty children.  Children outnumbered adults by more than three to one…”

“Ida B. Wells, the Robert Taylor Homes, and other Bronzeville high-rise projects have all been torn down as part of the C.H.A.’s ‘Plan for Transformation,’ which Mayor Richard M. Daley launched in 1999… The agency declared that residents would have the right to return to the newly constructed mixed-income housing that would replace the high-rises… In 2005. Venkatesh and Isil Celimli wrote that seventy-five percent of C.H.A. residents surveyed stated a preference for returning to their old neighborhoods, but less than twenty percent would be able to do so.”  The neighborhoods south of Chicago’s Loop have gentrified. Developers of mixed income housing failed to include enough apartments whose rent would be subsidized for low-income families. Once again, public policy, which was supposedly designed to relieve overcrowding for poor Black families, served the needs of wealthier citizens who wield power in the private housing marketplace that shapes our cities.  The poorest residents of Bronzeville, forced out by the clearing of the towering housing projects, were merely displaced into other communities where poverty is concentrated.

The history of urban renewal and the development of public housing is filled with policies that were intended to improve conditions for the poorest and most segregated families in America’s big cities, but which instead had the effect of exacerbating racial segregation and concentrated poverty.  The Dyett hunger strikers, while they didn’t achieve all of their local demands, succeeded in exposing educational policies that have purported to improve America’s lowest scoring schools but have instead had the effect of condemning the schools with the label of “failure,” condemning their teachers as unable to raise test scores, imposing federally mandatory turnarounds like “school closure,” and encouraging families who can afford it to move to places with better ratings.  Some states have even been awarding letter grades for the schools being rated, encouraging wealthier families to move to the school districts rated “A” instead of staying in communities with grades of “D” or “F”—driving families with money to wealthy exurbs and away from cities and inner-ring suburbs.

Education policy over the past 15 years has been driven, top-down, by the federal government. The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act tied a mass of punitive policy to a school’s incapacity to raise aggregate student standardized test scores for every subgroup of children; the schools that haven’t been able to raise scores are the ones experiencing school closures like the one at Dyett.  While a half century of research has demonstrated that test scores are closely tied to family wealth or poverty, No Child Left Behind and the Obama punitive policies like Race to the Top have ignored the impacts of poverty—homelessness, joblessness, food insecurity, high rates of parental incarceration, high rates of family mobility, lack of adequate medical and dental care, chronic absence, and so on—on the children in the schools with the lowest scores.

The Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon recently discussed these issues in an interview published on the inequality website, Too Much, Segregation’s Insidious New Look.  “We have a market-driven housing world.  With inequality in family income growing, families can afford to spend increasingly different amounts on housing.  They end up sorting themselves more into neighborhoods that have housing at the price they can afford.  In metro areas where income inequality has increased the most, we see income segregation increase the most… There is, however, some interesting new research from Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California.  She seems to be finding that increasing income segregation among families with children is driving most of the increase in income segregation.  Childless households—whether single people or elderly people or couples who don’t have kids—aren’t becoming that much more segregated from each other…. It’s really families with children that are becoming more economically segregated, and this suggests that concerns about where children are going to grow up and what schools they’ll go to—and maybe who they’re going to play with—are interacting with income inequality to drive the patterns of income segregation.”

Reardon explores the implications for education: “Increasing economic segregation means that kids from high-income families live with kids from other high-income families and go to schools that have more resources.  They go on to do better in school and have a better chance at attending a good college.  We have evidence over the last few decades that the achievement gap—the test score gap—between students from high-and low-income families is widening, and maybe that’s related to these processes.”

There has been a huge effort by policy makers in both political parties to sell the public on the idea that standardized testing and subsequent punishments for schools that cannot quickly raise scores are the best way to hold schools accountable for their seeming inability to serve our poorest children, many of them children of color.  The Dyett hunger strikers accomplished something very important by exposing that policies like school closure only further punish neighborhoods that have historically been underserved—places where school funding has never been adjusted to address the needs of a mass of very poor children, communities where the tax base has collapsed but state funding has never been equalized to address the needs of communities whose fiscal capacity has been reduced.

The Dyett hunger strikers forced the general public to pay attention.  The hunger strike, covered widely in the press, was mounted by parents and community members who understand personally just how today’s education policy is being experienced by the children and parents who live in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.